The Pivot and Australia's New Fleet

Australian submarine HMAS Rankin. Australian Navy

The Australian government’s recent decision to purchase 12 new submarines will shape Canberra’s foreign policy and Asia’s regional politics for the next half century. Its process for buying them will thus be watched anxiously by the region’s heavyweights, the United States and China; the aspiring vendors France, Germany, and Japan; and smaller countries worried about their neighborhood’s future security.

These submarines will allow Australia not only to defend its own territorial waters but to project power in more distant strategic regions such as the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. Its recent defense white paper notes that “future operations could include contributing to security in North Asia and helping to protect the extensive sea lines of communication that support Australian trade.” This is welcome news for the United States, which has encouraged Australia and other allies to step up its efforts to resist what it views as Chinese expansionism. Whereas France and Germany view selling submarines to Australia as an important and lucrative addition to their considerable defense exports, the deal means more for Japan, which not only is trying to tie Australia to a mutual cause of maintaining the regional status quo but also seeks to export weapons for the first time since World War II.

Although some analysts worry about upsetting Australia’s largest trading partner, China, most public statements by U.S. and Australian foreign policy hands, such as in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, have strongly favored the Japanese bid for reasons that have little to do with its capabilities as a weapon. They instead argue that a sale between the two powers would cement their developing informal alliance and have immense strategic value for the containment of China. The United States is rumored to agree with that assessment and to quietly favor the Japanese bid. Not surprisingly, China is opposed to the so-called Option J.

Such hypotheticals make for good press, but to quote the well-worn military saying, amateurs

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