The Australia, Brendan Nicholson
4 January 2016
Japan’s ambassador to Canberra, Sumio Kusaka, with a model of a Soryu-class submarine; Japan hopes to build an evolved version of the vessel for the Australian navy. Picture: Andrew Taylor
Japanese ambassador Sumio Kusaka scoffs at suggestions that language and cultural differences could make it difficult for Japan to build Australia’s multi-billion-dollar fleet of new submarines.
From the Japanese embassy in Canberra, he points west to where Japanese technology is revolutionising iron ore mines in the Pilbara, with immense driverless trucks and freight trains that, at 2.4km long, are the world’s biggest robots.
The submarine contract dominates diplomatic, industry and media attention, but instances of Japanese technology aiding our ambitious innovation agenda abound. The relationship between the two nations has deepened over decades, says the tall, silver-haired ambassador appointed last year, who speaks of the relationship between his country and Australia with warmth and the studied care of a career diplomat with 37 years of experience.
The Japanese people have become very comfortable with the two nations developing much closer strategic contact, Kusaka says. The original commerce relationship signed in 1957 by prime ministers Robert Menzies and Nobusuke Kishi has blossomed to include political, security and defence co-operation.
“We have gone beyond the fairly narrow focus of common business and economic interests. We have now entered a stage where there is a special relationship, a special strategic partnership,” Kusaka says.
“We share common strategic values and interests and that peace and stability and prosperity is critical for both of our nations.
“As this relationship is implemented bilaterally it will contribute to the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.”
And as Australian mining goes from old world to new world, Japan is aiding its quest to maintain an international edge. It fits very neatly with Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda.
During his flying visit to Japan last month, the Prime Minister told his hosts there had rarely been a time in which technology had proved so disruptive or promised opportunities so great. “A strong Japan is good for our region, as is a strong Australia,” Turnbull said.
He impressed Japanese business leaders by quoting the words of local 19th-century teacher Yoshida Shoin: “Jikko naki mononi, saykoh nahshi — to succeed, we must act on our ideas.” Turnbull told the cream of Japanese industry leaders at a Tokyo lunch that Japanese robotic technology was helping the imaginative leadership of great Australian companies to push frontiers.
And he noted approvingly that Japan is home to 40 of the world’s top 100 most innovative companies, more than any other nation.
Turnbull spoke of NSW grain farmers trialling self-steering tractors controlled by Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System. And Japanese navigation systems on mining trucks are so precise that they outperform their conventional, human counterparts by 12 per cent.
It is all part of a much bigger picture of growing economic and strategic co-operation. Which brings us to the submarines, Australia’s biggest defence project. Depending on whether the government opts for eight vessels or more, the submarines will cost between about $12 billion and $20bn to build, and it will take another $30bn to sustain them through their lives.
The Turnbull government’s decision, based on the RAN’s advice and expected in midyear, could see a version of Japan’s hi-tech and stealthy Soryu submarine become the vital plank of a growing defence and security relationship between Tokyo and Canberra.
Kusaka says most Japanese people are aware of regional security concerns and would strongly support their country sharing its most advanced submarine stealth technology with Australia as a trusted ally, confident it would not be passed on to any third country.
The Soryu features sophisticated snorkel technology that allows it to recharge its batteries while submerged in very rough weather — even in a typhoon.
Japan wants to build for Australia an evolved version of its Soryu-class submarine with a much longer range than its domestic version to meet our navy’s requirements.
To increase fuel storage and crew accommodation, it would add a 6m to 8m-long section to the Soryu design. The submarines would come with a revolutionary system that enables their engines to run and crew to “breathe” while submerged through a snorkel more sophisticated than any other in operation. The longer a submarine remains exposed on the surface to recharge its batteries, the greater the risk to it from enemies; the snorkel allows it to cruise just below the waves.
Kusaka says Australia could rest assured it would receive all of the most advanced design elements and equipment in the Japanese submarines.
“We are ready to transfer 100 per cent of this technology,” he says. That would include the Soryu’s advanced lithium-ion batteries, a key to the latest model’s very long range.
And he stresses that Australia has no reason to be concerned that if the government of Japan changed, co-operation on submarines would stop mid-project.
“The Prime Minister of Japan is committed to this project. That says something very important and it is quite different to assurances from commercial project leaders,” he says. For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the main focus is the strategic relationship with Australia, according to Kusaka.
A government-to-government undertaking from the top would be seen in Japan as a long-term commitment by the nation.
“It is an Australia-first policy they have in mind. A very trustworthy commitment,” the ambassador says, adding that Japan is the only country in the world to have constructed and operated a 4000-tonne conventional submarine.
In contrast, France’s plan for a conventionally-powered “short-fin” Barracuda submarine based on its nuclear-powered Barracuda-class subs would be a huge challenge, Kusaka says. “In our case there is minimal engineering risk. We have proven reliability. That is very important.
“The snorkelling system has already been incorporated in the Soryu class, so we know it works.
“It is very effective even in terrible weather conditions and a big advance on existing submarine snorkels.
“Survivability is what this submarine is all about, and that goes together with stealth,” he says.
The Soryu is capable of diving very deep, Kusaka says, and it makes much less noise than other boats. “That significantly improves the survivability of the submarine. The Japanese navy is confident that the Soryu class is very hard to detect.”
But the submarine contract Japan is competing for against France and Germany is just one element of a multitude of ways in which Japan believes it can help Australia — from commercialising medical breakthroughs through to a common perspective on the worrying regional strategic situation, amid concerns about China’s intentions in the South and the East China Seas.
Kusaka was in Canberra as a junior official in the early 1980s. He says the biggest difference he found on his return was the much larger number of Australians who had visited Japan and could talk about it. “Japanese business leaders talk of a very warm relationship with Australia,” he says. “They see Australia as very important country for them.”
For its economy to expand, Australia needs foreign investment and much of that could come from Japan. Collaboration is crucial, Kusaka says.
Japan welcomes Turnbull’s strong interest in innovation, he says, and it could help Australia in this area. “There is great complementarity.”
Both nations are having to deal with ageing populations, Kusaka says, so close co-operation in medical science and innovation will be extremely important.
Few world economies had strengthened more steadily over the years than Australia, the ambassador adds.
Innovation is a particular strength in his country, he says, but at the same time Japan has long looked on Australia as a nation producing strong fundamental research and development, and Japan could help Australia put that to practical use. “What you may want to see more of is commercialising that knowledge and research,” he says.
Japan is particularly interested in Australian medical innovation and how it could be harnessed to help keep ageing populations in both nations healthy.
Advanced Japanese battery technology is crucial to submarines as well as to renewable energy. Equally crucial is innovation aimed at reducing water consumption in agriculture as the planet warms. Japanese business leaders briefed by Turnbull during his visit to Japan were impressed with the opportunities for co-operation he offered.
On December 1, the two countries launched a joint study on hydrodynamics: how a submarine’s hull can best be shaped to ensure water flows over it as quietly and with as little disturbance as possible, so that the vessel is hard for prowling surface warships and aircraft to find.
The door to Japan amending its interpretation of its pacifist constitution to enable it to become involved in Australia’s submarine project was opened by former prime minister Tony Abbott, and that part of the relationship was said to involve more pull from Canberra than push from Tokyo.
But The Australian has been told that has changed and Japan is showing increased enthusiasm for a joint submarine enterprise.
When Prime Minister Abe visits Australia later this year, the trip will focus on helping Australia commercialise scientific and technological innovation.
But defence co-operation will also increase, whatever the outcome of the submarine contract.
Kusaka points out that the critically important South China Sea and the East China Sea lie between Australian and Japan.
“Japan has a policy of proactive peace. We see great benefit in collaborating with Australian forces through joint exercises, joint training,” he says.
About 40 Japanese soldiers joined Australian Defence Force members and US forces in last year’s Exercise Talisman Sabre in northern Australia.
“We hope to see more of them,” the ambassador says. The region’s peace and prosperity are so important to the US, Australia and Japan that it is only natural for the three nations to co-operate.
“I think it is very important because, frankly speaking, Japan and Australia are the only nations which are advanced democracies with advanced economies in this region, and of course New Zealand,” Kusaka says.