Philip Wen, SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
16 February 2016
TOKYO – Japan has urged Australia to award a contract to build its new $50-billion submarine fleet, emphasizing the strategic imperatives of such a deal as both countries seek closer ties amid growing security tensions in the region.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop received the strategic pitch from her Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida during a two-and-half-hour meeting in Tokyo which also canvassed tackling China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, potential sanctions against North Korea, and Australia's opposition to Japan's resumption of whaling in the Southern Ocean.
The fleet would not just amount to a transfer of defense technology and capabilities, Japanese officials say, but lead to greater operational cooperation which would help bolster maritime security in the region – a counterweight to China's efforts to transform its navy into a global maritime power.
The potential co-development of the new submarine fleet, amid the broader deepening of security ties with Japan, is viewed with suspicion by a Chinese government convinced the United States and its allies are intent on containing its rise.
Ms. Bishop, speaking to reporters after her meeting with Mr. Kishida at the official Iikura Guest House, stressed a decision would only be made after a competitive evaluation process, with the winner announced later this year. France and Germany also remain in the running for the order, which will replace Australia's diesel and electric-powered Collins Class submarines.
"I note Japan has emphasized the strategic importance of their bid, but likewise the other two bidders have emphasized what they perceive to be their strengths," Ms. Bishop said on Monday night, the first of a five-day visit to Japan and China.
"What Australia is seeking to do is look at ensuring that the international partner can meet our needs in terms of capability, quality, reach and also the needs of Australian industry."
Foreshadowing the potentially delicate talks awaiting her next leg in Beijing, Ms. Bishop said she discussed with Mr. Kishida ways to ensure China embraces the international rules based order "under which so many countries in this region has prospered" when it came to the South China Sea.
China has ignored calls for it to halt its program of island-building in the South China Sea, which has included the construction of military-grade airstrips and naval berths, citing its right to do so on sovereign territory and that similar reclamation was being carried out by rival claimants Vietnam and the Philippines.
"It's not a question of Japan wanting us to do more, it's about what Australia wants to do and Australia has already made it plain that we will continue to advocate for peaceful resolution over the different claims over the South China Sea," Ms. Bishop said.
On North Korea, Ms. Bishop said China could use its influence as a key trade partner and energy supplier to curb its neighbor’s behavior, following separate nuclear and ballistic missile tests in recent weeks.
She said Australia was considering whether to take autonomous sanctions against North Korea, noting Japan this week announced a blanket ban on shipping from the country and barring all North Koreans from entering. South Korea and the United States have also announced its own measures as the United Nations Security Council debates a resolution to impose sanctions.
"The international community must send a strong message" against North Korea, Mr. Kishida said at the start of Monday's meeting, adding that North Korea's actions pose a "direct and grave" threat to Japan's national security.
Ms. Bishop is scheduled to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani on Tuesday.