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The relationship between France and Japan has historically been centered on economic engagement, with France being the second largest destination for Japanese direct investment in Europe and Japan being the largest Asian investor in France. The construction of these strong commercial exchanges were the results of the Jacques Chirac presidency (1995-2007) driving diplomatic engagement with Japan – the former French President was a notable fan of sumo and Japanese art.
Over the past decade, however, the bilateral relationship has grown in leaps and bounds, focusing more on strategic ties, most notably since François Hollande‘s state visit to Japan in 2013. This dynamic has arisen from both powers’ desire to preserve international rules and norms amidst the expansionist projection of authoritarian powers on the international scene.
Both France and Japan have notably been at the forefront of aggressive military and diplomatic practices of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, CCP delegates penned abrasive false statements about the Macron government’s mishandling of the health crisis. Across the East China Sea, Chinese warships regularly approached Japanese territorial waters off the Senkaku Islands.
Against these challenges, during the last Foreign and Defense Ministers meeting (2+2), France and Japan emphasized the importance of enhancing bilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. It remains unclear, however, what the strengthening of bilateral ties means in practical terms. Nonetheless, with the Indo-Pacific strategies of both powers committed to upholding the existing security and economic order, there is room for ongoing practical and ambitious bilateral cooperation.
AT THE MARITIME LEVEL
With the recent French presidential election offering Emmanuel Macron another five years in office, there is an opportunity for Japan and France to leverage maritime cooperation. At the last 2+2 talks, both countries recognized the deteriorating security environment in the East and South China Seas. Over the past year, French and Japanese maritime forces were actively involved in maritime security exercises: in April French and Japanese frigates conducted naval drills in the South China Sea; in May their navies participated in “Arc-21” exercises off the coast of Kagoshima, Japan.
To further strengthen maritime interoperability and engagement, it is critical that France engages in existing institutional security frameworks in the Indo-Pacific, of which Japan is a member. Accession to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) would allow the Elysée to strengthen its strategic cooperation with Japan against the common challenge of China while maintaining varying levels of strategic autonomy, an important component of French strategic thinking.
But why is France’s inclusion important in safeguarding the rules-based order?
France is an Indo-Pacific nation. In the South Pacific, France maintains possession of small island territories ranging from French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and New Caledonia – home to France’s largest military station in the region. With regard to the Indian Ocean, France is a significant player through its control of various islands, most notably Reunion and Mayotte. France’s series of dependencies in the Indian Ocean allows Paris to exercise control of an Exclusive Economic Zone that encompasses 2,650,013 km².
This human and geographical connection with the Indo-Pacific is complemented by a significant military presence: 8,000 soldiers and dozens of ships pre-positioned across several bases. The state of affairs in the Indo-Pacific, as a result, have significant geopolitical consequences for France’s strategic interests. China’s ongoing destabilization and coercion of maritime rules and norms are ultimately detrimental to French possessions in both oceans. The recently signed security agreement between Beijing and Honiara, which could see the People’s Liberation Army develop an overseas naval base within 1584 km from Noumea, attests to this, as it could undermine the stable, law-based regional maritime order that has brought unprecedented peace to the South Pacific since the Second World War.
“France is a key partner for Australia. We share those historical ties going back to the First World War and we share common interests in a stable Indo-Pacific region because France is, of course, an Indo-Pacific nation”.Anthony Albanese, Prime Minister of Australia, seeking rapprochement with Emmanuel Macron.
The Quad appreciates France’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific. In April 2021, the four Quad countries joined France in the French Navy’s La Pérouse exercise held in the Bay of Bengal. France cooperates with Quad countries at the minilateral level: there exists a France-Australia-India trilateral on maritime safety and a Japan-Australia-France trilateral on South Pacific affairs.
With the damage to Franco-Australian relations subsided with Paris and Canberra agreeing to mend their differences following former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s unceremonious termination of a $600 billion contract with French shipbuilder Naval Group, there is a unique opportunity for the democratic grouping to expand the mechanism. Newly elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has notably called Franco-Australian ties “an absolutely vital relationship” and recently met with Emmanuel Macron in a first high-level bilateral meeting between the two countries since the scrapped submarine deal. And with Franco-American relations emerging more quickly from the AUKUS crisis, culminating in an ambitious roadmap laying the groundwork for stronger bilateral and transatlantic cooperation in key areas that include the Indo-Pacific, the momentum is there to deepen the relationship.
ON THE ECONOMIC FRONT
A France-Japan partnership on digital infrastructure would bring urgent modernization and connectivity needs to developing countries in the Indo-Pacific. Growing income inequality and high rates of poverty threaten the digital transformation of the region’s small and middle powers. While notable recipients such as the Maldives, Cambodia, and Tonga have been major beneficiaries of Chinese aid and investment projects, mounting debt distress threatens to see these developing countries selling their strategic assets to the CCP, and thus, advance Beijing’s quest to develop a more Sino-centric regional order.
Technological innovation will inevitably be key to competing against China’s economic statecraft programs: such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The transformative impact of a digital revolution in small and middle powers would bring a wave of change to the economic and social well-being of the people and help these countries bridge the technology gap with high-income countries. France and Japan will have to act decisively as the PRC has already signed agreements on cloud computing, artificial intelligence capabilities, e-commerce, and mobile payment systems with Pakistan and Laos. The onus is now on the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency to lay the foundations for joint collaboration on digital technologies that challenge China’s growing hegemony.
AT THE ENVIRONMENTAL SCALE
Climate change is a non-traditional threat to international security and the future existence of modern civilization. More frequent or intense extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification will pose a range of threats to the well-being and security of countries in the Indo-Pacific.
In Southeast Asia, there are already examples of how climate variability affects natural resources, economic hubs, and energy systems, with rising sea levels threatening to flood and salinate the Mekong Delta which could endanger economic development in southern Vietnam. France and Japan have equally succumbed to the devastating effects of climate change recently: in March the northern Japan Fukushima coast was rocked by a powerful magnitude 7.4 earthquake while wind gusts exceeding 200 km/h from tropical cyclone Niran has brought damage to critical infrastructure on the French overseas territory of New Caledonia.
Yet efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change have been hamstrung by China’s desire to build more coal-fired power plants to meet its growing energy demand: 88% of the continent’s primary energy supply comes from fossil fuels. For Dr. Chunping, given the scale of the PRC’s energy consumption from coal, the CCP will not meet its climate goals unless it imminently expands its renewable energy capacity.
Climate security has long been a focus of the French and Japanese chancelleries. Unfortunately, the sixth meeting of French-Japanese foreign and defense ministers did not address the importance of leveraging joint diplomatic efforts. Yet, according to the latest report by a UN climate panel, the negative effects of climate change are accumulating significantly faster than predicted less than a decade ago. Against the backdrop of soaring energy prices triggered by Russia‘s terrifying invasion of Ukraine, the need for a reliable and affordable energy source has become even more vital. French energy companies have already started diversifying their imports to American suppliers of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), but Japan is scrambling to find a way out of the Russian Sakhalin-2 LNG project. As warfare increases greenhouse gas emissions, expanding LNG import diversification in the short term while increasing investment in rapidly deployable clean energy infrastructure would send a strong message to the Kremlin.
Success in keeping global warming below 2º C also requires both powers to intensify their green investments towards the Indo-Pacific. A recent Bloomberg report noted that many Indo-Pacific states cannot meet their 2050 energy transition needs from domestic onshore solar and wind generation. It is critical that France and Japan develop a green foreign investment strategy, particularly for the energy-poor countries of South and East Asia. These are highly aspirational demands of two middle size powers, but with the right will and leadership, they are not impossible to achieve.