Malcolm Turnbull treads warily in China on trade; legal net closes on PNG’s PM Peter O’Neill; peace moves in Middle East By Hamish McDonald.

Japanese unlikely to supply our submarines

A Japanese Sōryū-class submarine, during a fleet review last year.
A Japanese Sōryū-class submarine, during a fleet review last year.

Australia’s new submarine looks like it will be das boot. Not quite 74 years ago, three Japanese midget submarines crept into Sydney Harbour and created havoc. The odds of making it back safely out to the ocean were very low and in the end all six crewmen died. This weekend, the JS Hakuryu becomes the first Japanese submarine to arrive in Sydney since then. Its mission is salesmanship rather than attack, but the chances of success are also slim.

The word in Canberra is that the Japanese bid to get its Sōryū-class submarine, for which the Hakuryu is the demonstration model, chosen as the basic design of the Royal Australian Navy’s future submarine is likely to be rejected.

The Defence Department is understood to have completed the “competitive evaluation process” called for by former prime minister Tony Abbott a year ago after his secret “captain’s call” in favour of Sōryū boats built in Japan caused a mutiny in Coalition ranks. Its recommendation will shortly go to the national security committee of Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet.

With intensifying expectation Turnbull will call a July election soon after the May 3 budget speech, the defence industry is bracing itself for an announcement on not only a decision that the 12 new submarines will be built in Adelaide (that’s been more or less announced already, though the evaluation is supposed to look at an overseas as well as a domestic build, in addition to hybrid options) but the selection of the foreign development partner.

The Japanese submarine seemed to have a lot going for it. The Sōryū-class is the only one of three contending models that’s already in the water. Germany’s Type-216 is a proposed enlargement of other submarines in production. The French offer is a conventional-powered version of its Shortfin Barracuda nuclear submarine. 

Strong suggestions have been coming from the United States in favour of the Sōryū, because it would tighten strategic links between its two main Pacific allies, and because of worries about leakage of secrets about American combat systems and weaponry via the more export-oriented European shipbuilders. “In terms of demonology in the Pentagon, the ranking is France, Germany and Japan,” says a senior Australian figure with high-level access to US defence thinking.

Canberra is insisting the choice will be based purely on technology. And on closer study of its highly secret capabilities, the Sōryū-class has one big drawback. It’s superbly suited for lurking around North-East Asia, and diving deeper than just about any other naval submarine into ocean trenches. Yet its patrol range, about 6000 nautical miles, is less than the 9000-mile range of the RAN’s existing Collins-class, and its transit speed much slower. It would need substantial modification to install the bigger fuel load for the RAN’s requirements, and more engine power. Then there are the tasks of fitting a US combat system and array of torpedoes and missiles. 

Still smarting from the experience of Adelaide’s ASC shipyard working with Spain’s Navantia on the RAN’s three air warfare destroyers − three years behind in delivery and about $1 billion over budget − the Defence Department also worries about the work-culture mix if Mitsubishi partners ASC in building the new submarines.

Increasingly, defence circles think the bid by Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems looks the safer bet. An associated German shipyard provided the design and back-up for the RAN’s trouble-free Anzac-class frigate program. TKMS has built about 160 submarines since 1960, including 50 in the local yards of foreign navy customers, not to mention the hundreds of U-boats turned out by its predecessors in Kiel. At least the Americans won’t have to work with the French.  

1 . In a China shop

Turnbull would have been able to assure his Chinese hosts in Shanghai and Beijing this week that it’s a purely technical decision, and nothing to do with them throwing their weight around with Japan and other Asian friends.

It all makes Abbott’s handshake deal with Japan’s Shinzō Abe look even more reckless than it was, landing the RAN with what would have been an unsuitable submarine as well as massively contributing to the deindustrialisation of Australia, not to mention disappointing the expectations raised with Japanese friends. 

That being said, the specifications of the new submarine are all about China: being able to patrol up to its coastline, and in the most dire contingency being able to lob a cruise missile into Communist Party headquarters. 

Turnbull needed all his favourite quality of “agility” on this and other aspects of the China relationship. With a thousand company reps in tow, he was there to push Australian exports under the new China–Australia Free Trade Agreement, which came into force in December. Chinese bureaucrats chose this week to slap an 11.9 per cent tax on the booming shipments of Australian food and vitamin products via Chinese free-trade zones and e-commerce distributors. It is indeed an exciting time to be trading with China.

2 . Caught Moresby

The legal net is closing around Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill over an old case of alleged corruption, raising more doubts about whether this also agile politician can stay in office through to elections due around August next year.

Earlier this month PNG’s Supreme Court lifted injunctions preventing the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate from investigating O’Neill and several others about an allegedly inflated $30 million fee paid to Port Moresby firm Paul Paraka Lawyers, allegedly authorised by O’Neill in 2010-11 when he was finance minister in a previous government.

On Monday, the directorate arrested a Supreme Court judge, Bernard Sakora, and charged him with taking a 100,000 kina ($A42,000) payment from a company linked with the same law firm. Sakora has sat on several cases related to the 2009 fee, and in 2010 issued an injunction sought by Paraka Lawyers and a former solicitor-general preventing the publication and implementation of a commission of inquiry into inflated legal bills. Sakora denies taking the payment from Paraka Lawyers.

The anti-corruption agency followed up by arresting O’Neill’s lawyer, Tiffany Twivey Nonggorr, and charged her with attempting to pervert the course of justice over her efforts to stop O’Neill’s arrest. On Tuesday, its agents met PNG Attorney-General Ano Pala at Port Moresby’s airport when he arrived from Brisbane and charged him with misusing his electoral district development funds for personal expenses.

3 . Middle East peace

Peace efforts are making some headway in two of the civil wars raging in the Middle East. In Yemen, a ceasefire between the Saudi-backed ousted government and the Iran-backed Houthi movement started on Monday and took hold in the capital Sanaa and the port of Aden. In Libya, Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister-designate of a new unity government, has managed to last two weeks in the capital Tripoli so far.

Sarraj arrived by navy ship and has been working from a naval base in Tripoli. He still has to get endorsement from the UN-recognised parliament, but this might happen on Monday. Then he has to win the backing of the militia that runs a second administration in Tripoli. Several other tribal militias have agreed to give him a go, as have the institutions in charge of Libya’s oil industry.

In Afghanistan, though, it’s still war-war rather than jaw-jaw. After a pause to allow farmers to reap the opium harvest, the Taliban announced a spring offensive had begun at 5am on Tuesday.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2016 as "Japanese sub likely to sink in Sydney".

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