Europe is becoming increasingly visible in the Asian security scene, evidenced not least by the growing frequency of European naval deployments in the region. More European naval vessels are coming to Asia, a reflection of the stronger connectivity between Asia and Europe – meaning that what happens in Asia affects Europe more directly – and the heightening of European concerns about China over the past few years. This European naval engagement in Asia is marked by two phenomena, which are occurring simultaneously.
First, the U.K. and France, the two European countries that have maintained a consistent presence one way or another in Asian security, are stepping up their engagement. London is set to deploy HMS Queen Elizabeth, a brand new aircraft carrier, to the Indo-Pacific region for an extended period of time and a number of joint training and exercises with the navies in the region are envisaged. The fact that it will be a truly U.K.-U.S. joint carrier strike group (CSG) – joined by a U.S. Navy destroyer and U.S. Marines F-35s jet fighters – makes it even more strategically significant and Beijing more nervous. The level of media interest in this deployment in Japan is already quite high.
In the meantime, though attracting less attention, France has also stepped up its naval engagement, including by sending the nuclear-powered attack submarine FS Émeraude to the Western Pacific. The boat visited Guam, conducted Japan-U.S.-France joint anti-submarine warfare (ASW) training last December, and sailed through the South China Sea, something announced by the French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parley. FS Tonnerre, an amphibious assault vessel, is also coming to Asia as part of the Jeanne D’Arc 2021 mission, during which Japan-France-U.S. amphibious training, among other training and exercises, is planned.
In short, British and French operational deployments of their naval vessels to Asia are becoming more substantial and serious, and the vessels are taking part in more high-end training and exercises in the region.
Second, in addition to the U.K. and France, a remarkable new phenomenon is the growing number of other European countries that are becoming more engaged in Asian security or that of the Indo-Pacific more broadly. Germany came up with new Indo-Pacific policy guidelines in September 2020 and is now planning to send a frigate to Asia later in 2021. The Netherlands also released its Indo-Pacific guideline in November 2020 and the country is set to join the U.K. (U.K.-U.S.) CSG, although this has yet to be finalized.
While in Northeast Asia, the German frigate is also going to join the international efforts to implement the UN sanctions against North Korea – monitoring “ship-to-ship transfers.” Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as the U.K. and France have been participating in this mission since 2018.
Tokyo has always welcomed European engagement in Asia’s security. Amid the deterioration of the security environment surrounding the country, Japan needs more partners sharing its fundamental values and interests for the purpose of upholding international principles such as freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of conflicts and opposing unfounded claims and the change of the status quo by coercion. In advancing the vision of free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), Tokyo has reached out to Europe in addition to deepening cooperation with Australia, India and others in the region.
In military terms, this means complementing the Japan-U.S. alliance or creating “an additional layer of security above and beyond that provided by the United States,” as succinctly argued by James Rogers. Tokyo has no illusion about the role the U.K., France or other European powers could play in hard security terms in Asia – Europe is by no means expected to replace the role of the United States. Nor will Europe’s naval presence, intermittent at best, change the balance of power in Asia. Moreover, Tokyo will continue to wonder about the sustainability of European engagement in the region, given limited assets and resources.
Yet there are two important roles that Europe could play. First, what is important is Europe’s capability to plug-in to U.S. activities in the region, particularly those in the context of the Japan-U.S. alliance and Japan-U.S.-Australia cooperation. The facts that the British aircraft carrier comes to Asia with the Americans and that Japan-France-U.S. exercises have been taking place can, therefore, be seen as perfectly in line with this “plug-in” concept.
Nonetheless, what Washington expects Europe to do in military terms in Asia has often been ambiguous. While the U.S. has assisted with British and French deployments, there is skepticism in the U.S. about Europe’s military role in Asia. “Better to have Europe play to its strengths in the Euro-Atlantic area rather than to vainly try to project meaningful military power to the Asia-Pacific,” argues Elbridge Colby. The Biden administration needs to come up with a clear idea as to what military role it expects Europe to play in Asia.
Second, even short of affecting the military balance in the region, European naval deployments could still send a strong strategic message to Beijing and Europe seems more willing to do this. Beijing does not like to see more countries residing outside the region getting involved in Asia, including the South China Sea.
Yet, Tokyo faces three major challenges before it can make full use of Europe’s military engagement in Asia. First, Japan does not seem to have a coherent strategy regarding its security and defense cooperation with Europe. The short-, medium- and long-term goals Tokyo wants to achieve and the assets and resources it could allocate to cooperation with Europe remain unclear. As a result of this lack of strategy, Tokyo tends to be reactive – more or less responding to what the U.K. or France propose – rather than putting forward its own initiatives, sometimes leaving the British and French counterparts wondering what Japan wants to do.
Second, related to the above, the direction of Japan’s security and defense policy does not seem to be clear either. While Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has expressed his commitment to strengthen the alliance with the U.S., his stance vis-à-vis other security relationships, including those with Europe, has yet to be fully known. The lack of strong political leadership in this regard affects the scale and substance of join training and exercises with Europe.
Third, Tokyo needs to avoid to be seen as a demandeur asking European engagement in Asia. The other side of the same coin is Japan’s engagement in areas where Europe has more immediate interest, including Europe itself and its neighboring areas like Africa and the Western Balkans. Helping others is the surest way to get help when in need.