Japan-France bilateral partnership: what future direction for strategic and non-traditional security cooperation?

Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito, speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting at the Chateau de Versailles. Source: Ludovic Marin/Pool via AP

The nature of the relationship between France and Japan has historically been centered on economic engagement. France is the second largest destination for Japanese direct investment in Europe and Japan is the largest Asian investor in France. The construction of these strong commercial exchanges have been in large parts the resultant of President Jacques Chirac’s 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 leap 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 approached Japanese territorial waters off the Senkaku Islands 18 times in 2021. 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 mean 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 continued, 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 two-plus-two 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 a resident power in the Indo-Pacific. In the Pacific: it maintains French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna and New Caledonia – home to France’s largest military station in the region. With regard to the Indian Ocean, the republic 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 geography connection with the Indo-Pacific is complemented by a significant military presence: 8,000 soldiers and dozens of ships are pre-positioned across several bases. The state of affairs in the Indo-Pacific thus affect France precisely because France is a resident actor there, with strategic interests to maintain and defend if needed. China’s ongoing destabilization and coercion of maritime rules and norms is ultimately detrimental to French possessions in both oceans.   

Yet France’s membership of the Quad risks being undermined by the Elysée’s strained relations with the Australian government. The Macron government was caught off guard by Scott Morrison’s unceremonious termination of a $600 billion contract with French shipbuilder Naval Group and by the creation of the AUKUS alliance; prompting significant outrage from the head of the Quai d’Orsay, Jean Yves le Drian: “There was lies, there was duplicity, there was a major breach of trust”. French bitterness stems from the fact that the contract was a pillar of France’s defense commitment to the Indo-Pacific. Diplomacy will undoubtedly be critical to repairing diplomatic relations between Canberra and Paris. France has a vested interest in advancing hard power cooperation to safeguard the rules-based maritime order: this imperative is all the more important given that Beijing is working on a security agreement with Honiara, which could permit the setup of a Chinese military base just 1,584 kilometers from the French naval base of Pointe Chaleix. Japan, which heralds close ties with Australia and France, can play a central role in improving ties. 

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 future of the region’s developing countries. 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 developing countries along both oceans would bring a wave of change to the economic and social well-being of the people and help developing countries bridge the technology gap with high-income countries. France and Japan will have to act decisively: 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: rising sea levels threaten 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 Russias 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 2 C also requires both powers to intensify their green investments towards the Indo-Pacific. A recent Bloomberg report noted that many Indo-Pacific states can’t 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.

Suggested readings

Hornung, J.W. (2020) Allies Growing Closer: Japan-Europe Security Ties in the Age of Strategic Competition. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, United States: https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/AD1118430.pdf

Pajon, C. (2018) France and Japan: the Indo-Pacific as a springboard for a strategic partnership, Institut Français des Relations Internationales,Paris, France.

Scott, D. (2019) France’s “Indo-Pacific” Strategy: Regional Projection. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 19(4): 76-103.

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Japan-France bilateral pa…

by Kareem Salem time to read: 6 min