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How has Japan reacted to its failed bid to build Australia’s new submarines?

The Japanese bid to build Australia’s new fleet of submarines was unsuccessful. AAP/James Knowler

How has Japan reacted to its failed bid to build Australia’s new submarines?

The Japanese bid to build Australia’s new fleet of submarines was unsuccessful. AAP/James Knowler

The decision on who would build Australia’s next generation of submarines carried just as much anticipation in Japan as it did in Australia. A successful tender would embolden Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to enhance his brand of “active pacifism”. This is a more assertive approach to defence but “with Japanese characteristics”.

It was no surprise, then, that online news spaces quickly filled on Tuesday with news of Japan’s failed bid, following Australia’s decision to award the contract to French firm DCNS.

How did mainstream media cover it?

As the announcement broke, Japan’s major newspapers tweeted confirmation of rumours leaked a few days earlier that Japan’s bid had failed. The Sankei Shimbun quickly hinted at “pressure” from China.

Since then, follow-up stories have drawn out the “China” element. They have quoted opinions from experts in Japan and Australia about the relative strength of pressure from China not to award the contract to Japan.

Two cabinet members, Defence Minister Gen Nakatani and Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, said publicly that the decision was disappointing. Suga said he couldn’t see it affecting the:

… security and defence co-operation between Japan, the US and Australia.

Just the point, some observers argued, that concerns China.

Nakatani said he would pursue an explanation for the failure.

English-language newspapers were also running stories by late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The “China” element had emerged as a key reason for the bid’s failure. But the assertion appeared that perhaps the Japanese government, relying too much on former Australia prime minister Tony Abbott’s promises, had failed to play the politics.

The story continued to run for a third day. In the morning edition of Thursday’s Asahi Shimbun, the president of one of the lead tenderers, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, said that without the experience of selling defence materiel overseas, his company had perhaps relied on the government in the negotiations. A hint of buck-passing thus emerged.

Activity on social media

Japan’s social media sphere is just as engaged in this debate. And the social media response is worth noting. Part of Abe’s domestic political milieu is the broad resistance to his brand of “active pacifism”. Many feel the government is ignoring their views.

Views on social media have ranged from relief that Japan failed in the bid and that Japanese technological secrets will not be shared, through views that Australia bowed to Chinese pressure, to claims that the Chinese father-in-law of Malcolm Turnbull’s son was partly to blame.

It is also clear on social media that Australia’s stance on Japanese whaling is the itch that won’t go away in the bilateral relationship – despite the best efforts of public diplomacy.

The submarine decision has reheated some of the stronger nationalism in Japan being cultivated by the Abe government’s stronger defence outlook. It is, for want of a better cliché, something of a double-edged sword – the opportunity for Japan to become a player in the weapons arena lost, but to a country (Australia) towards which there remains residual antipathy over Japan’s “food culture”.

Relationship implications

It is unlikely that the failure to award the submarines contract to Japan will affect the Australia-Japan relationship in any major way.

Although much has been made on both sides of the special brand of trust between Abbott and Abe that brought the Japanese tender even to this point, the relationship and the harsh reality of the domestic political machinations will mean both governments will continue to cultivate the relationship.

The Abe government is due to gauge the public’s view in upper-house elections in July. Abe’s second term as prime minister concludes at the end of the year. Abe may require special dispensation from the party to continue beyond his designated two terms.

The results in July’s election will give party stalwarts some indication of the value of Abe’s brand of politics and “pacifism”. It might also be time to start looking beyond a post-Abe government.

The media response to this issue has been one of the most comprehensive on the state of Australia-Japan relations in recent times. It has perhaps been the biggest since the whaling issue. Domestic politics in both countries has played a strong part, but the undercurrents will continue to ripple across the bow of the partnership.