Australia, in talks to acquire submarine technology from Japan, may further bolster military ties as the East Asian nation eases its pacifist doctrine and rules on defense exports, Defense Minister David Johnston said.
“Japan is changing its constitution which frees them up,” Johnston said in an interview today aboard a Royal Australian Air Force plane en route from Canberra to Darwin. “Operationally we’ve been doing a lot of things with them in terms of peace-keeping. Exchanging technology is a very important part of taking it to the next level.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who’s increased Japan’s defense budget in the face of a territorial spat with China, is easing restrictions on defense exports and reinterpreting the U.S.- imposed pacifist constitution to let his troops defend other countries. Johnston’s Liberal-National coalition, which won power a year ago, is seeking to build out the country’s military capacity by increasing its comparative defense spending from its lowest level since 1938.
Australia, an ally of both Japan and the U.S., may use its trading ties in the region as leverage to boost its military capacity. It was focusing particularly on Japan and South Korea, its second- and third-largest trading partners and with whom it signed free-trade agreements this year, according to Johnston.
“Australia has grown up economically with Japan and South Korea,” Johnston said. “Culturally and commercially we’re better skilled than most to deal with those countries. If we’re talking to both of those countries in terms on military capabilities, we have a really good opportunity to relate with them.”
Australia, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is committed to building new Collins-class submarines at facilities in the state of South Australia. Along with Japan, the nation is also in talks to acquire the diesel-electric expertise that it requires from Germany, France, the U.S. and U.K., Johnston said. Discussions with all nations were still preliminary, he said.
Australia also sees an opportunity to share information with Japan on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. It’s buying 72.
“There’s a huge opportunity because there’s a very big investment by both of us in air combat capability,” Johnston said. “We can do exercises together, we can exchange views on how to sustain the aircraft, how to make repairs, and generally get as much value out of the platform as we both want to do. Leveraging off each other’s capabilities is a very significant part of the interaction.”
Australia is attempting to balance its economic ties with China with its military partnerships with the U.S. and Japan, which are concerned the world’s most populous nation has caused friction in the Asia-Pacific region with its territorial claims. Of particular concern are China’s claims in the South China Sea, an area estimated to have major oil and gas reserves and which carries some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Australia Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has criticized China for proclaiming an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea. The U.S. is in the midst of a rebalancing toward the region in a bid to check China’s rise.
“The disputation of islands in the South China Sea needs to be resolved pursuant to international legal principals,” Johnston said. “Unilateral actions are unhelpful. We don’t take sides but we want to see disputes resolved.”
Still, China’s involvement in the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean this year may be seen in future years as a “ground-breaker” for Western-Sino ties, he said.
“I think they were surprised that we greeted them so graciously,” Johnston said. “They fitted in quite seamlessly with the operation. Humanitarian disaster relief and search and rescue are two areas, before we get into the pointy end of military exercises, which have huge potential” to bolster ties with China, he said.
China will for the first time be involved in trilateral military exercises with the U.S. and Australia in October in Australia’s north, a development Johnston described as “exciting.”
Johnston was speaking on the plane on his way to witness Pitch Black, air military exercises which include the U.S.
Yesterday he concluded the annual AUSMIN U.S.-Australia security talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The nations agreed to extend their force posture agreement for another 25 years and bolster the number of Marines in the northern Australian city to 2,500 by 2020 from about 1,200 now, Johnston said.
“The U.S. is leaning forward to say to the region ‘we’re not just here to criticize, we’re here to engage’,” Johnston said. “That’s been very tangibly visible in the last six months.”