Australia’s decision to buy French, not Japanese, submarines is far from an attempt to appease Beijing. On the contrary, the arms deal is bound to strengthen US-led efforts to push back against China’s muscular posture in the Asia-Pacific.
As part of a massive modernisation programme for Australia’s navy, the government in Canberra has placed its order for twelve new submarines. The $39 billion (€35 billion) deal with the (largely state-owned) French company DCNS, is a blow to its competitors in Germany and even more so in Japan. Up until the last minute, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries had seemed on track to win this contract – and in Tokyo the rejection is perceived as an economic loss as well as a diplomatic snub.
It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that Japan’s arch-rival China had a hand in this outcome. Beijing had taken the unusual step of publicly warning the Australian government against buying the submarines from Japan, hinting at possible negative repercussions for Australia’s trade relations with China. So did Canberra now give in to Chinese pressure and abandon its blossoming military and security co-operation with Washington and Tokyo?
Australia’s choice was based on sound reasons
This is hardly the case. Australia had sound reasons for its choice. The Barracuda submarines are considered first-class in their ability to move below the sea silently, and they meet the specific requirements the Australian navy is looking for (the Japanese Soyu class submarines and the ThyssenKrupp submarines would have to be re-engineered significantly). DCNS will produce the submarines in Australia, and it could offer nuclear engines as a future alternative source of propulsion if Canberra ever wanted them.
All of this does not mean that China played no role in Canberra’s deliberations. On the contrary, it is safe to assume that China’s posture in the region was the decisive factor underlying this arms deal. Canberra’s naval rearmament, of which the submarine deal is only one part, is a response to China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific and to its military build-up in the South China Sea. Australia has not been shy to state its concerns about China publicly, and its recent White Paper on Defence spells them out quite bluntly.
Decision will not harm regional alliances
The French Barracuda submarines that Australia now is set to acquire over the coming decade will be equipped (as would have been the German or Japanese alternatives on offer) with US-built weapons and weapons guidance systems. This will facilitate interoperability between the navies of two countries, or indeed of three.
Of course, Tokyo is unhappy about the loss of a contract that would not only have been commercially lucrative but would have also been seen as a symbol for Japan’s new, more outward-looking and strategic security policy. There can be no doubt that Canberra will keep that in mind, too, and find ways to compensate its ally Japan for this particular decision against Mitsubishi.
There is therefore no reason to see Australia’s decision as a setback for Washington’s attempts to push back against China’s more muscular policies in the region by way of strengthening its bilateral alliances with Tokyo and Canberra. Nor is it likely to endanger the budding security partnership between the two US allies who have their own good reasons for closing ranks against Beijing’s growing military presence in the region.
Finally, for France the submarine contract is a success of its own “pivot” to Asia-Pacific. New channels of communication will open for Paris with the region’s governments and its strategic community. That is good news for Europe, too. Due to its own – small but real - military presence through its bases in the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific, France is in a good position (certainly in a better one than Germany) to represent Europe as an interlocutor and possible partner in the Asia-Pacific. After all, an arms deal of this kind and magnitude does have geo-political relevance.