By Jesse Johnson
TOKYO: A Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine arrived in Sydney Friday – the first time a Japanese sub has entered the harbor since World War II – to participate in bilateral exercises with its former foe.
The Soryu-class submarine Hakuryu was dispatched with the destroyers Umigiri and Asayuki for the latest round of Exercise Nichi Gou Trident, which kicked off the same day.
“This exercise, which has been conducted between Australia and Japan since 2009, is an opportunity to develop and enhance the bilateral naval relationship by practicing maritime skills and improving levels of interoperability between our two navies. This is the first opportunity to conduct the exercise off Sydney,” the Australian Defence Department said in a statement.
The drills are expected to focus on anti-submarine warfare.
The exercises will also provide the Australian military with an up-close look at the Soryu-class submarine ahead of a 50 billion Australian dollar decision on a contract to build 12 new subs to replace its aging Collins-class vessels.
A Japanese defense source denied the visit was an attempt to influence the bidding process, but did note that it was a good chance for Tokyo to show off interoperability between the two allies.
Japan is seen by some analysts as the front-runner in a three-way race with France’s DCNS and Germany’s TKMS to build Australia’s new sub fleet.
According to Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, the visit was an excellent chance for Japan to showcase the Soryu’s long-range capability and other performance characteristics.
“The interoperability advantages speak for themselves,” Graham said. “But of course it presents a perfect opportunity to do some A-grade export promotion in parallel. Aside from the favorable optics of being seen to train alongside the potential purchaser’s navy, it will also give the Royal Australian Navy a chance to evaluate how the Soryu performs under local conditions, and how it measures up against the Collins.”
Graham also said the entry into Sydney “appeared deliberately low-key, without fanfare, and there appears to have been little effort to drum up media attention.”
The visit came as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was leading a business delegation to China that was due to wrap up Friday. Australia has close trade ties with China but growing security ties with Japan.
“Since Hakuryu doesn’t depart Sydney until April 26, and is doing a series of exercises in the vicinity of Sydney, it could be that the welcome is being staggered so as to avoid hostile questioning from Chinese media during Prime Minister Turnbull’s visit to Beijing,” Graham added.
Turnbull said earlier this month that the evaluation process was being conducted in a “very thorough way” and that a decision on the contract is expected “shortly.”
During a visit to Tokyo in February, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said her country’s relationship with Japan was at an “all-time high,” and acknowledged that the Japanese side had emphasized “the strategic importance” of the submarine bid.
The joint drills also come amid increased tensions with Beijing over China’s land-reclamation projects and maneuvers in the disputed South China Sea.
The United States has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations near disputed islands in the waters and has urged both Australia and Japan to conduct similar operations. TNS