By Celine Pajon, for the EastWest Institute
On June 26, French President Emmanuel Macron made what was deemed to be a long overdue visit to Japan, a year after his previous travels to Asia saw him in China (January 2018), India (March 2018) and Australia (May 2018). His belated visit did not reflect a lack of interest or engagement in bilateral relations with Tokyo. Since his election, Macron has met six times with 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 relationship, 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 was adopted during Macron's visit. The most promising area to upgrade the "Exceptional Partnership," as it is referred to by French and Japanese officials, is maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
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, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, as well as 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 Economic Corridor in partnership with like-minded countries.
In this regard, Macron highlighted the "Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis" in May 2018; Japan is likely to be identified as the third, key coordinating partner. Indeed, Paris and Tokyo — two liberal democracies — share several common concerns regarding unilateral challenges to the international order and the possible advent of, what many observers view, 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 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 United Kingdom, among others, it also allowed Japan and France to hold quadrilateral drills with the United States and the United Kingdom 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.
Japan stands out as a key partner for France as Paris has been recently developing an Indo-Pacific strategy.
Paris increasingly views Tokyo as a crucial and active player, as part of a wider network of strategic partners that will help to compete with China on a level playing field across the vast Indo-Pacific region.
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, the South Pacific and Africa — areas in which Tokyo has deep experience. Ensuring the safety of vital sea lines of communication and the freedom of circulation are core interests for both Japan and France. Paris has repeatedly and concretely demonstrated its attachment to the freedom of navigation — the frigate Vendemiaire's passage in the Taiwan Strait in April being one example. France is also encouraging other European countries to increase their presence in the China Seas, effectively extending a competitive will in this critical region rather than facing China's encroachment to European shores. This aligns perfectly 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 has a desire 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 — considered by French diplomats as too anti-Chinese. Rather, French officials highlight the importance of engaging with China and encouraging Beijing to play the role of responsible stakeholder, while discussing the future of multilateralism and global governance. In effect — by promoting inclusive, flexible frameworks to gather countries with shared-interests to cooperate on specific issues — France is offering an alternative to countries that do not want to choose between the U.S. and China.
Japan might not be completely comfortable with this approach, considering its close relations with the U.S. and its distrust of Beijing's wider intentions. This perception gap between Paris and Tokyo regarding China is important and enduring: Japan has been consistently asking France to clarify its stance regarding China and is still suspicious of Paris selling dual-use equipment to Beijing. Certainly, France's Indo-Pacific strategy contains elements to counterbalance China; but, walking a fine line with Beijing sometimes leads to delicate political maneuvering.
Ultimately, France's balanced approach might provide a useful option as Tokyo is gradually at odds with the most confrontational aspects of U.S. policy toward China, and tries to promote a conditional engagement policy vis-à-vis Beijing together with a more inclusive, Indo-Pacific approach centered on ASEAN countries.
Overall, the Indo-Pacific narrative is providing an especially useful rationale to expand Franco-Japanese security cooperation. Both nations are taking advantage of the vague nature of the Indo-Pacific concept for their own interests, while attracting other players as partners, thus strengthening the overall initiative. Nevertheless, the partners should be careful to maintain a regular and deep dialogue to manage expectations and avoid misunderstandings. They should also work quickly to concretely identify joint projects for cooperation to maintain momentum.
France and Japan's respective Indo-Pacific approaches may not be completely aligned, but as the two countries largely see each other as like-minded and necessary partners, this will not prevent the expansion of their comprehensive and deepening cooperation in the region.
Céline Pajon is a research fellow and Head of Japan research with the Center of Asian Studies of Ifri (Paris).