On June 26, French President Emmanuel Macron will make his first, what is deemed to be a long overdue visit to Japan, a year after his previous travels to Asia led him to China (January 2018), India (March 2018), and Australia (May 2018). Arguably, his belated visit does not reflects a lack of interest or engagement in bilateral relations with Tokyo. Since his election, Macron has met six times the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was invited as guest of honor to Bastille Day last year. In 2018, the two countries celebrated the 160th anniversary of their bilateral relations, and the partnership is advancing on all fronts: from economic cooperation, with the implementation of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, to an ambitious space agenda.
A new roadmap to expand the cooperation for the next five years will be adopted during Macron’s visit. But the most promising area to upgrade the “Exceptional Partnership” is likely to be maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific area.
Japan stands out as a key partner as France has been recently developing an Indo-Pacific strategy. The French government has shown its resolve to step up its diplomatic and security commitments in this vast area where it has 1.6 million citizens, territories, and a large Exclusive Economic Zone. Key challenges such as China’s maritime expansion and growing constraints on the freedom of navigation, crimes at sea, proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, terrorism, but also natural disasters and pressure on maritime resources are increasingly putting French interests at risk. In response, Paris wants to foster a multipolar, rules-based Indo-Pacific in partnership with like-minded countries.
President Macron highlighted in May 2018 the “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” in this regards, and Japan is likely to be identified as the third key coordinating partner. Indeed, Paris and Tokyo, two liberal democracies, share a number of common concerns regarding unilateral challenges to the international order and the possible advent of what many observers view as an illiberal Chinese hegemony in the region. France and Japan’s security cooperation has been steadily expanded and formalized, with an annual 2+2 Dialogue at the ministerial level since 2014, an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment and technology (2016) and an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement (ACSA) (2018). Joint exercises have been upgraded, from Japanese participation in multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) exercises held by France in the South Pacific to exercises of control at sea with the Frigate Vendemiaire in 2018 and 2019. As Japan has been diversifying its security partnerships beyond its U.S. ally to include India, Australia and the UK, among others, it also allowed Japan and France to hold quadrilateral drills with the U.S. and U.K. near Guam in 2017. This year, combined naval exercises gathered the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle with a Japanese helicopter carrier, a U.S. guided missile destroyer and an Australian submarine in the Indian Ocean.
Tokyo is increasingly seen by Paris as a crucial and active player to coordinate with, as part of a wider network of strategic partners that will help to compete with China on a level playing field and allow for a division of labor in the vast Indo-Pacific area.
Importantly, France and Japan are launching a Maritime Dialogue this year to expand their cooperation regarding all things related to oceans: from the fight against plastic pollution to ocean surveillance, from biodiversity protection to anti-piracy operations. Japan has strong maritime expertise and capabilities and is the partner of choice for Paris.
The two countries also plan to multiply coordinated strategic port calls and joint exercises, and are looking to expand their coordination on maritime capacity-building assistance activities in Southeast Asia, South Pacific and Africa – an area in which Tokyo holds deep experience. Ensuring the safety of vital sea lanes of communication and the freedom of circulation is a core interest for Japan as it is for France. Paris has repeated and concretely demonstrated its attachment to the freedom of navigation – as the revelation of the frigate Vendemiaire’s passage in the Taiwan Strait in April showed – and is encouraging other European countries to step up their presence in the China Seas as well, for fear that these kinds of challenges might expand all the way to the European shores. This is perfectly aligned with Japanese interests and calls for more countries to have a viable presence in the region to constrain Chinese behavior.
Converging, rather than aligned Indo-Pacific strategies
However, despite shared strategic interests between France and Japan, Paris still wants to promote its own version of an Indo-Pacific strategy. As a result, France does not want to endorse Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy (or vision), nor join the Quadrilateral Dialogue, which has been considered by French diplomats as too anti-Chinese. Rather, French officials highlight the importance to engage with China and encourage Beijing to play the role of responsible stakeholder while discussing the future of multilateralism and global governance. In effect, France’s ambition is to offer an alternative to countries that do not want to choose between the U.S. and China by promoting inclusive, flexible frameworks to gather countries with shared-interests to cooperate on specific items.
Japan might not be completely comfortable with this approach considering its close relation with its U.S. ally and its strong distrust vis à vis Beijing. This perception gap between Paris and Tokyo regarding China is important and enduring: Japan has been consistently asking France to clarify its stance vis à vis China and is still suspicious of Paris selling dual-use equipment to Beijing. To be sure, France’s Indo-Pacific strategy obviously contains elements of counterbalancing China, and walking a fine line with Beijing is sometimes leading to political acrobatics.
Ultimately, France’s balanced approach might provide a useful option as Tokyo is gradually at odds with the most confrontational aspects of the United States’ China policy and tries to promote a conditional engagement policy vis-à-vis Beijing together with a more inclusive Indo-Pacific approach centered on ASEAN countries.
All in all, the Indo-Pacific narrative is providing a very useful rationale to expand the Franco-Japanese security cooperation. The catch-all, vague nature of the Indo-Pacific concept indeed allows each player to use it for its own interests while attracting other players as partners, thus strengthening the overall initiative. But the partners should be careful to maintain a regular and deep dialogue to ensure that they still see eye to eye in order to maintain expectations and avoid misunderstandings. They should also work quickly to identify joint projects and further flesh out their cooperation in a concrete way in order to keep the ball rolling. France and Japan’s respective Indo-Pacific approaches may not be completely aligned, but this will not prevent the expansion of their comprehensive cooperation in the region, as the two countries largely see each-other as like-minded partners.
Céline Pajon is a research fellow and Head of Japan research with the Center of Asian Studies of Ifri (Paris). She tweets @CelinePajon