Japan’s foreign and defense ministers reiterated concerns about China’s strengthening position in the South China Sea in meetings with their Australian counterparts and pressed the case for Japanese companies to build new generation submarines Down Under.
“China is increasing its activities,” Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters in Sydney at the conclusion of the so-called two-plus-two meeting with Australia on Sunday. “To accommodate or condone the current situation, we cannot accept -- we need to ensure the rule of law and freedom of navigation,” he said via a translator.
China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea based on a nine-dash line drawn on a 1947 map for which it gives no precise coordinates, an assertion that has led to complaints from other claimant states. Under President Xi Jinping, the country has stepped up efforts to assert control of the waters, including building islands that offer possible bases for its ships and planes.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reiterated Australia’s position that while it doesn’t take sides on the various claims of surrounding nations, it urges “all claimants to settle any disputes pursuant to international law and in accordance with a rules-based international order.”
Japan is also pressing to receive the contract to build Australia’s next-generation submarine, and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani sought to cast the bid in the context of freedom of the seas. “Both of our nations are maritime nations and we have a key interest in freedom of navigation,” he said via a translator Sunday.
For Japan, winning the race to design and build the submersibles would cement the "special" relationship Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to build with a fellow U.S. ally against an assertive China. For Australia, cooperating with Japan -- whose Soryu is widely seen as the best submarine of its type -- risks angering China, its biggest trading partner.
Japan, which less than two years ago lifted a decades-old ban on arms exports and as a result has little experience in international arms marketing, is facing off against global heavyweights Thyssenkrupp AG of Germany and DCNS of France for the A$50 billion ($36 billion) program.
Nakatani, who visited the southern city of Adelaide that is a hub of naval manufacturing prior to the meeting, said his pitch involved the “strategic importance of Japan-Australia submarine cooperation, how Japanese technologies are excellent and reliable and Japanese efforts to maximize participation by Australian companies.”
Japan's Kokuryu, a Soryu-class submarine.
Japan has deployed its conventionally powered, 4,000-ton Soryu class subs -- the largest of their type in the world -- since 2009. The latest models cost about 60 billion yen ($487 million). The Soryu, manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, is a close match for the Australian Navy’s needs, though the new submarines would be a fresh design, Masaki Ishikawa, a Ministry of Defense official working on Japan’s bid, said in an interview Friday.
Nakatani’s Australian counterpart, Defense Minister Marise Payne, reiterated that a competitive evaluation process is in place and she is awaiting submissions from the three bidders -- Germany, Japan and France -- by the end of the month. She went on to praise Japan.
“We have similar values, we have shared strategic interests, we have a common alliance with the United States,” said Payne, who was appointed to the post in September. “A significant proportion of our discussion today was devoted to enhancing that defense cooperation.”
In the joint communique subsequently released, the two countries underlined their “deep engagement in the economically and strategically significant Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region” and “recognized that building prosperity and maintaining stability in these regions was of vital importance to both countries.” They also reiterated concerns about North Korea as a destabilizing factor in East Asia.