Asia Defense

New Opportunities for EU-Japan Defense Relations

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Asia Defense

New Opportunities for EU-Japan Defense Relations

A closer look at the security component of ties between the two sides.

New Opportunities for EU-Japan Defense Relations
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On July 17, 2018, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heralded a new dimension of EU-Japanese relations. This new dimension has largely been invoked due to the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) – the EU’s largest trade deal ever – signed at a time when Washington’s role in championing the liberal world order is, at best, on hold.

While the United States is retreating to its borders, the EU and Japan have also been busy negotiating an agreement adjacent to the widely-reported EPA: a strategic partnership agreement (SPA). The SPA provides a new framework for the EU and Japan to reinforce their many shared interests related to preserving a rules-based international order. In addition to a strong focus on non-proliferation and disarmament, the agreement provides scope for sectoral cooperation in areas of mutual interest to the EU and Japan.

This is particularly relevant given the series of defense cooperation agreements Japan signed with EU member states in 2017. In tandem, the EU-level SPA and the various bilateral defense agreements form a solid foundation for newfound and diversified cooperation in matters related to security and defense. While the SPA provides a useful framework for security-related civil cooperation with Japan, the bilateral relationship will remain the backbone for military cooperation. As the boundary between security and defense becomes increasingly blurred, an examination of both levels of analysis is crucial to understanding European-Japanese cooperation as a force for global stability.

Growing Security Providers

Recent years have seen both Japan and the EU stepping up their commitments as security providers in their respective regions and on a more global scale. Both have focused on defense technological cooperation, as best seen in Japan’s arms export policy changes in April 2014 and the EU’s recent decision to fund cooperative defense research and development (R&D) for the first time from 2021 onward, building on years of discussions and preliminary grants in place now.

Japanese interest in EU defense developments is twofold. Firstly, more open doors are welcome to Japan  as it struggles to make its mark on the highly competitive international arms market and gradually grows its role as a security provider. Whether cooperation is used as a means to expand on technical and process-driven know-how at the EU or member state level, or as an entry point to European markets for Japan to finally secure defense exports, relationships with Europe provide Japan with non-adversarial alternatives to Washington. Responding to U.S. pressure for more equal footing in the U.S.-Japan military alliance, Japanese-European partnerships may also allow Tokyo to demonstrate to Washington substantive, credible contributions to preserving peace and stability.

Secondly, the EU policy changes as a possible inflection point vis-à-vis the EU approach to China. Previously unhappy with what Tokyo saw as a Sino-centric approach to Northeast Asia, the SPA and the EU thirst to elevate its security and defense profile may offer an opportunity for the EU to, from a Japanese perspective, take a more principled stance on China on freedom of navigation, commitment to non-proliferation and enforcement of sanctions, and other issues related to sustaining a rules-based international order. With Europe unencumbered by military alliances in Northeast Asia, China is less likely to decry EU-Japanese cooperation as containment than when the United States is involved. Operating on relatively similar timescales, with similarly held values and interests, and below the threshold of containment, Japanese-European cooperation can be seen as a logical response to mutual interests in elevating their security and defense profiles and promoting peace.

Technological Niches

Together with the EU-Japan EPA, the freshly inked SPA provides a framework for more substantive cooperation. In addition to overarching priorities such as advancing non-proliferation and promoting free trade, the SPA opens up various areas of sectoral cooperation relevant to security and defense. While much of the language in the SPA is somewhat vague, the elaboration of mutual interests laid out within is particularly relevant for shared science and technology (S&T) priorities.

In some ways, the SPA concretizes existing formats of collaboration. For instance, the bilateral EU-Japan cybersecurity dialogues that begun in 2015 could become the foundation of stronger cooperation combating cybercrime, promoting cyber capacity-building measures, and strengthening cybersecurity, as mentioned in the SPA. Building on the EU Green Gateway to Japan Programme, active since the 1990s, EU-Japanese collaboration on green energy technology development could take on a more strategic role. The SPA, which names climate change and energy security as two of its priority areas, could capitalize on shared innovativeness between European and Japanese companies through such programs.

Regarding outer space cooperation, the SPA also mentions ensuring the mutual compatibility of navigation satellite systems, a key area given European and Japanese prioritization of independence from U.S. GPS systems. With the European Space Agency’s Galileo system having entered the Full Operational Capability phase, such compatibility – or integration – is timely as Japan launches its next three satellites to complete its own navigation system by 2023.

Notably, the SPA also mandates that a Joint Committee be set up to oversee implementation of the agreement, ensure implementation with a dispute-resolution mechanism, as well as decide upon additional areas of interest. As the EU decides later this year whether the Permanent Structured Cooperation defense cooperation mechanism will be open to third states, Japanese S&T strengths, such as robotics, could make it a candidate for future capability development. Already the SPA calls for enhanced S&T cooperation, leaving both dual-use and military developments open in the future, as may be discussed by the Joint Committee.

The Defense Industry Domain

While the SPA serves to overview the key areas of strategic cooperation between Europe and Japan, it is the bilateral relations between Japan and EU member states that emphasize military cooperation, and also shed light on the niches of mutual interest for European-Japanese military capability development cooperation.

Between December 2016 and July 2017, Japan signed defense technological and industrial cooperation agreements with five European countries – all of which previously exported weapons to Japan over the past decade. Now that defense cooperation is constitutionally permitted, the agreements – with France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the UK – illustrate Tokyo’s desire to establish a two-way street in defense cooperation.

The agreements make clear two priorities for Japanese cooperation with continental Europe. Firstly, Japanese agreements with France from December 2016 and Italy in May 2017 have a clear maritime angle, respectively mentioning underwater anti-mine robots and military cooperation in maritime security-related areas. Secondly, with regards to the July 2017 agreements with Sweden and Germany, technology transfers are clearly prioritized. Reporting emphasizes Japanese interest in technology transfers for Swedish air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems, previously used in Japanese Sōryū-class submarines, as well as German systems to allow T-90 tanks to increase speeds and be used on more remote Japanese islands. These agreements diversify networks while simultaneously seeking to indigenize certain capabilities.

While Japanese defense technological cooperation with the United Kingdom merits its own in-depth discussion, missile co-development and a potential UK-Japanese sixth-generation fighter collaboration are notably deeper than the other cases described here. As the UK exits the EU, it will likely re-focus more attention toward non-EU partners, further deepening these forms of cooperation with Japan and other parts of Asia as it attempts to avoid isolation and fulfill its status as ‘Global Britain’.


Symbolically and substantively, these agreements demonstrate Japan’s willingness to diversify its defense networks, rather than rely more wholly on security guarantees from the United States. Assessing defense networks, the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, Japan ranks in fourth place after the United States, Australia, and South Korea. In addition to deepened defense (and maritime security) relations with Australia and Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, these partnerships with like-minded democracies in Europe highlight Japanese ‘proactive contributions to peace’ by mobilizing support for a rules-based international order. As Japan increasingly responds to perceived Chinese aggression, particularly regarding threats to free and safe navigation, this diversification of partnerships adds to Tokyo’s toolbox.

Recent years have seen Japanese politics and strategic outlook become more hawkish. As the EU and Japan consider a more operational form of cooperation – perhaps leading to an eventual Framework Partnership Agreement, such as the one between the EU and South Korea to facilitate third state contributions to EU security missions and military operations – it is also possible to imagine more military capability development cooperation as well. The test for EU defense relations beyond its own neighborhood will also be whether there is any fusion between member state-level cooperation and sectoral cooperation per the new EU-Japan SPA.

On the military side of the equation, Europe has been successful in carving out niches as Japan diversifies its partnerships away from Washington – while simultaneously seeking to gratify Washington’s demand for a more equal military partnership. While Europe does not seek in any shape or form to replace U.S. security guarantees in Northeast Asia, both bilateral and EU-level developments show positive signs for contributing to regional and global stability.

Zoe Stanley-Lockman is an Associate Research Fellow in the Maritime Security Programme of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).