For Australian observers, the fact that Japan is sending a Soryu immediately led to a conclusion that Japan had upped the ante on its rivals for the Future Submarine Program. By dispatching the Soryu, Japan is not only demonstrating that: A) the Soryu has the range to reach Australia from the northern Pacific, but that B) through exercises with the RAN Japan wants to further promote its submarine relationship with Australia. Given the fact that neither France nor Germany have actually built their prototypes yet, for Japan to send a Soryu class submarine to Australia is a PR strategy par excellence to convince any doubters of Japan’s capabilities and to send a signal that Japan is going all-out to win the CEP. What will be particularly interesting is whether Japan will allow any of the CEP committee to tour the submarine, because presumably that’s one particularly area that Australia would have a great deal of interest in.
This development has yet to fully grab the attention of Australians, but that will be a different story by the latter part of next month. My expectations are that there will be a lot of media outlets competing not only for interviews with Hakuryu crew members, but also requests for tours of the submarine itself. Given that the Soryu-class is rarely featured on television in Japan, it’s hard to imagine these requests being approved unless it is in a strictly controlled manner. But the fact that a Soryu-class submarine will be in Australian waters, the first ever Japanese submarine to do so since WWII, will excite op-eds and commentary across the board.
Of course, there will be questions as to whether Australia is following the right path, and there will inevitably be comparisons to the Soryu and Imperial Japanese submarine operations in Australian waters during WWII (hell, it’s already happened. Just see the very first link above). If the Soryu visits Sydney, then those comparisons will resonate even louder. But such comparisons will be missing the larger picture.
The fact is that Japan is offering to share its most secret technology with Australia and is doing so because it knows Australia faces a burgeoning capability gap which needs to be addressed. Japan is willing to forego any commercial profit from its engagement with Australia because it sees a long-term future in closer Australia-Japan security ties. Does Japan expect Australia to come to its aid if it becomes engaged in a conflict with China? That would surely depend on what Australia can offer, and I think the influence of ANZUS would weigh more heavily on Australian thinking than anything that Japan might demand. After all, if the US were to call for a coalition to resist China, and did so across its wide network of allies both in the Indo-Pacific and further afield, then the onus on Australia to join such a coalition would become very great indeed.