While such political developments are always welcome for the amount of interest they generate, Ozawa and his 49 other party members might have their work cut out trying to convince the populace that they are more than just another party seeking to promote themselves above the needs of the many (as recent polling has shown (J), while Ozawa might champion the cause of repealing a hike in the consumption tax and emphasising the re-building of those areas hardest hit by the tsunami disaster of 2011, his reputation is far too muddied to realistically bring about a major shift in public opinion).
Given the fact that the PLCFP (a fairly clumsy acronym but hey, it's early days yet) appears to currently exist for no other reason than to ensure that PM Noda and his cabinet will be hiked out of the DPJ's leadership position through a vote of no confidence in the Noda government, what happens to Ozawa's party and other former DPJ offshoots (aka, the Kizuna Party) after the next general election will be an interesting litmus test of whether the public has any faith in these new parties to enact the reforms (both fiscal and bureaucratic) that are sorely needed to sustain Japan into the future. Given past poll results (J), the likely answer will be no.
Frustration at the opacity of decision making in Japan reared its head again this week following comments made by Defence Minister Morimoto that the deployment of MV-22 Osprey to Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture would go ahead (J), although he could not give any specific timeframe on when that would happen (expectations are that this will occur before the Yamaguchi Prefectural elections on the 29th of this month). The fact that yet another report from the US of a forced landing of an Osprey as a result of technical issues (E) came during the same week at Minister Morimoto's announcement did nothing to assuage local fears regarding the Osprey, especially those areas that will potentially be under proposed flight paths for Osprey aircraft. Methinks that the MOD and Minister Morimoto will have their work cut out for them over the next month and a half trying to convince the population of the need for Osprey deployments, even though both Japan and US have agreed that such deployments will go ahead as planned. This might result in protests outside the MOD similar to those related to nuclear energy outside the Prime Minister's Residence (J), but only time will tell.
This week also saw a report within the Sydney Morning Herald that the head of the Royal Australian Navy's Future Submarine Program, Rear Admiral Rowan Moffitt, together with the Chief Defence Scientist, Dr Alexander Zelinsky, would be travelling to Japan this month in order to hold talks with the Maritime Self Defence Force on the Soryu class submarine (E). This move comes in the wake (no pun intended) of nearly a decade long debate within defence circles on what should be done to replace the Collins class submarine, a locally produced submarine (based on designs supplied by Kockums Shipbuilding Company of Sweden) that has undergone a mixed service history (to say the least) punctuated by propulsion and electrical system problems.
The Collins itself has been the subject of numerous studies, articles, and a Australian government sanctioned review (the Coles review, the second part of which is scheduled to be released soon), with the consensus being that while the Collins was an ambitious project for a nation within no previous experience of submarine manufacturing, the manner in which the submarine project was managed (work on the hull began after only 25% of designs had been approved, while the propulsion system was never tested at sea before being installed) left much to be desired. As such, the current Gillard government has been ultra cautious in deciding upon how and with what the Collins should be replaced. At present, the government has two options in front of it - build a replacement for the Collins in Australia based on native designs and technologies (probably the least preferred option, as it would be prohibitively expensive and technologically risky, although it would win favour with local defence industry groups crying out for government work), or buy a proven submarine from overseas shipbuilders (the military off-the-shelf, or MOTS option)*.
Given the concerns of the government, the latter option will in all likelihood be taken, with a three way competition between European manufacturers - the HDW Type 214, French DCNS Scorpenes or a Navantia based design, the S-80 (Navantia, based in Spain, are currently responsible for construction of two Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships for the RAN, along with the design and hull construction for Australia's newest generation of Air Warfare Destroyers, or AWDs). There are concerns, of course, that such submarines are designed for the European theatre of operations, where submarines do not have to go on extended operations far from shore, nor do they have to adapt to moving from cold water to warm water environments. The Collins, although unreliable, could at least perform both of these tasks.
This is where the Australian interest in working with the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force comes into play. The Soryu class submarine is regarded as one of the best, if not the best, example of a 4200 tonne (submerged) conventionally powered (i.e., diesel) submarine in the world. The conditions under which the Soryu operates are similar to those of Australia, while in size and capabilities the Soryu resembles the Collins, although such is the degree of secrecy surrounding the systems within the Soryu that only the JMSDF and the US Navy know precisely what it is capable of doing. Ordinarily if Australia knew that the US had been developing certain military technologies with a third party nation, it would request a meeting with that nation to explore the possible sale of such technology to Australia. Yet the situation with Japan is more complicated as a result of the Japanese Constitution and restrictions on involvement in the sale of military technology to anyone other than the US. Although Japan has recently signed an agreement with the UK and is preparing to sign a similar document with France to jointly research defence systems, there is a big difference between jointly developing technology as opposed to the outright selling of technology.
Even if Australia expressed every willingness to share information with Japan, that would not necessarily result in a win for the Japanese, besides which if it became widely known that Japan was providing information to Australia on submarine technology and manufacturing, other regional states (i.e. China) might take exception to this and threaten to withdraw investment in Australia in retaliation (a potent threat given that China is Australia's largest two-way trading partner, although Japan comes in second followed by the US). Hence if Rear Admiral Moffitt does find much to like about the Soryu while in Japan, it may be a long time before Australia is actually able to gain anything from his visit. The sensitivity surrounding military issues in Japan, coupled with concern about the enthusiasm with which sections of the Australian government (state and federal) promote relations with China, might give Japan pause for thought. As this blog has previously mentioned, there is plenty of potential in an enhanced security relationship between Japan and Australia, however Australia will have to exercise patience in its dealings with Japan on this front lest it jeopardise such relations for political expediency.
* The government also considered but dismissed the possibility of acquiring US Virginia class nuclear submarines, on account of the fact that Australia does not have a sufficiently developed domestic nuclear industry, lacks the port facilities or workforce to properly repair, maintain, and crew nuclear submarines, and that the RAN does not maintain carrier fleets and so does not need a submarine capable of shadowing fast-moving vessels able to deploy across the world at short notice.