Despite being geographically distant, France and Japan share a number of converging interests.
French and Japanese Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense met in Paris on January 6 with the purpose of deepening strategic cooperation between the two countries. Gathering for their third 2+2 meeting, the ministers agreed to move forward with the joint development of defense equipment (undersea drones for minesweeping). Discussions on the signing of an ACSA (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement) were also launched, which could ultimately allow the two countries to share defense supplies and services thus expanding cooperation in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations.
This reflects a new norm for Japan: to inch more toward security cooperation with “like-minded” countries in the military realm as Tokyo’s regional environment is growing more insecure and volatile. However, if European countries, such as France, are deepening cooperation with a country they consider a new proactive security actor, more dialogue is needed to narrow the perceptions and expectations gap to allow for a more substantial partnership.
Converging interests from Asia to Africa
Despite being geographically distant, France and Japan share a number of converging interests, beginning with their attachment to liberal values and the protection of the rule of law and further ranging from common concerns on unilateral challenges to the international order (by China in the East and South China Sea and by Russia in Europe), nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, piracy, and so on. Their security cooperation is thus in expansion, with a 2+2 Dialogue at the ministerial level since 2014, maritime cooperation in the Pacific (HA/DR operations) and in the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy operations, coordination on building the capacities of third countries in East Asia and Africa, among others.
This said, each country has its own agenda.
For Japan, the primary objective is to ensure that France and other European partners share its analysis of the security challenges raised by the Chinese maritime expansion in East Asia. Tokyo is indeed looking for political support to face what it sees as attempts by Beijing to dominate its neighborhood and reshape the global order. Paris generally shares Tokyo’s line and, in their Joint Statement, both countries expressed their “strong opposition to unilateral actions that increase tensions, such as reclamation or building of outposts” in the South China Sea. Beyond words, Japan also wishes that France, which maintains prepositioned forces in the Pacific Ocean, increase its military presence in East Asia. Expectations in Tokyo have been particularly high after the French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian called at the Shangri-La Dialogue last year for coordination between European navies to ensure a regular and visible presence in the maritime areas of Asia.
Meanwhile, while France’s Asian policy has long been driven by its economic relations with Beijing, Paris increasingly wants to be recognized as a responsible stakeholder in the region. Under the administration of Francois Hollande, France has diversified its approach to Asia, building up ties with new partners (Japan, Australia, India, South Korea, Malaysia or Singapore). This new approach has also been driven by a more pragmatic objective: as a major provider of defense equipment in Asia, France cannot remain indifferent to the security concerns of Asian countries. Prime Minister Abe’s efforts to strengthen Japan’s defense posture convinced the French strategic community that Japan would soon be a normalized defense partner, eager to attain the best equipment and willing to increase security cooperation and coordination even beyond East Asia.
Indeed, both countries see an opportunity to geographically expand their security cooperation all the way to the Indian Ocean and Africa. A Joint Plan for Africa, adopted in 2015, already provides grounds for some modest security cooperation such as joint funding of peacekeeping schools on the continent. The definition of a Japanese “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”, announced by Prime Minister Abe at the Japan-Africa TICAD conference last August, should provide an impetus toward greater coordination in the field of maritime capacity building.
By stepping up its security cooperation with Paris in Africa, Tokyo can benefit from France’s precious knowledge of the African security environment, especially in the context of growing terrorist attacks (10 Japanese citizens died during the In Amenas attacks in January 2013 and two were beheaded by ISIS in 2015). Indeed, Japanese defense attachés based in African countries benefited from a first briefing from French defense officers in January 2016. In return, France can count on Japan to contribute to funding some security-related activities in the Sahel and West Africa.
A promising, long-term cooperation despite some challenges
If security cooperation is now under a positive dynamic, some challenges remain to be overcome in order to give way to a more substantial relationship. Some are related to a threat perception gap between the partners: Japan was shocked when France, along with most European countries, joined the China-founded AIIB back in 2015. Tokyo is also still suspicious of France selling dual-use equipment to Beijing, despite the bilateral consultation forum on export controls set up in 2013 to reassure Japan. Finally, some differences regarding the nature of the security challenge posed by Russia can also emerge between Paris and Tokyo, as the latter has been courting Moscow despite the Crimea annexation in 2014.
Furthermore, Japan is impatient to see more concrete steps in terms of an expanded French military presence in East Asia, while Paris considers that Tokyo’s commitment to shift from checkbook diplomacy to more tangible security contribution in Africa is still too modest. Finally, Paris is dubious about the real opportunities offered by the Japanese market to its defense equipment, as Japan remains very much U.S.-centered in this domain.
One additional and unexpected challenge the two partners now face is the management of their respective alliances with the United States under Trump administration. For Japan, the rapprochement with European countries serves both to reinforce the existing web of U.S. allies and to complement it, in the case of an American retrenchment. In the present case, the strong uncertainty about Washington’s future diplomatic orientations requires additional consultation and political coordination between Tokyo and Paris so as to weigh on U.S. options.
Despite these challenges, Franco-Japanese relations present no major points of friction. Looking to the future, the latest 2+2 also sought to demonstrate ambition for a long-term security relationship by expanding cooperation in fields such as space-based maritime surveillance and cyberspace. So the strategic partnership is set to grow, slowly but surely. But at the end of the day, a stronger cooperation based on the defense of liberal values will require both Japan and Europe to reflect on the current crisis of democracy and find ways to restore their own political and economic foundations.
Céline Pajon is a Research Fellow at the Center for Asian Studies at the Institut français des relations internationales. She tweets .