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How Japan matters to Europe

It goes without saying that Europeans and Japanese have much in common. They share fundamental values and norms about how society should be organised domestically and internationally. They both embrace democracy and free markets at home, and proclaim the need to uphold a liberal and rules-based international system. Geostrategically, they are both heavily dependent on the sea for their economic prosperity and security, and both enjoy a deep military-strategic alliance with the United States (US). Indeed, their respective alliances with the US mediates much of what Europeans and Japanese do in the area of security. And that largely explains why they are both devoting so much attention to Washington’s ambition to ‘rebalance’ eastwards towards the Asia-Pacific, as well as to the possibility of a US rebalance ‘inwards’ – towards the United States.

Against the backdrop of a double US ‘rebalance’, the prevailing sentiment amongst European security experts is that Europeans should make a greater security effort in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Mediterranean. Beyond that, it is widely believed that (most) Europeans have neither the will nor the capability to play a global security role, let alone in the Asia-Pacific. In turn, the Japanese welcome Washington’s intention to devote greater strategic attention and resources to Asia, but worry about the possibility that sustained defence spending cuts in Washington might undermine that very intention.

Their expectations and fears about a possible US rebalance show how self-involved Europeans and Japanese can be when thinking about security. In many ways, however, their emphasis on their respective regions is understandable. After all, they both have a full plate of regional security challenges. Japan’s neighbourhood is notoriously ‘lively’ these days. There is the outstanding issue of an unpredictable, nuclear-armed regime in North Korea. And territorial disputes in the South and East China seas hit the headlines at a much higher frequency than they used to. But as important as those are, the latter are just a specific manifestation of the broader strategic question that keeps Tokyo up at night: the meaning and geopolitical implications of China’s rise. Europeans, for their part, are trying to get their head around Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe – and worry about the possibility of a fully-fledged security meltdown in the broader Middle East. As Europeans continue to reduce their defence spending and struggle to barely keep up with events in their own neighbourhood, the idea of a security partnership with Japan may sound fanciful to many – and that of a European security role in the Asia-Pacific just plain delusional. But as that region marches unimpeded to the cusp of the global economy and Asian powers begin to reach out to other regions diplomatically and strategically, the case for Europe’s strategic engagement in the Asia-Pacific can hardly be overstated.

Admittedly, more and more Europeans understand that the rise of Asia is the driving feature of international politics. They also acknowledge that geopolitical stability in Asia and the security of the Indo-Pacific sea-lanes of communication is vital to their economic prosperity. It is important that this narrative sinks in. But it is also important that Europeans play that tape through to the end and recognise that their economic or diplomatic presence in the Asia-Pacific will not be sustainable unless it is underpinned strategically.

Asian countries worry about prosperity and security at the same time. This means that they must always look beyond economics and prioritise relations with those countries that can bring them both economic and strategic advantages. That is an important reason why Australia has recently opted for Japan’s Soryu class to build its future fleet of twelve conventional attack submarines, ditching several European contenders along the way. Canberra wants more than just a piece of fancy equipment: it also wants to strengthen its interoperability and political ties with someone that brings geostrategic value. This is something the Japanese can deliver and the Europeans cannot – unless they make a stronger commitment to Asian security, that is. Thus, reason number one is that European strategic engagement in Asia will underpin Europe’s economic success in Asia – a region that is increasingly central to the global economy.

Reason number two is security itself. Through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia, Asian countries are reaching out to the Middle East and Africa, both in the European neighbourhood. And they are also looking northwards, at the Arctic, another part of the European neighbourhood. These sort of outreach initiatives are primarily driven by economic and energy security considerations. But they are beginning to have diplomatic and geostrategic implications. China’s so-called Anti Access Area Denial capabilities, for instance, already extend to cover much of the Indian Ocean. In other words, strategic, technological and economic dynamics emanating from the Asia-Pacific will increasingly determine the shape and evolution of parts of the broader European neighbourhood, most notably in the broader Indian Ocean region.

Japan matters to Europe at least in two important ways. Firstly, it matters in the context of the Asia-Pacific ‘proper’. There, Europeans are on the demand side: they must urgently broaden their understanding of Asia-Pacific geopolitics, and gather as much reliable intelligence and analysis as possible about that region’s evolving security dynamics. And Japan, a regional country with whom Europe shares a political ethos and language, represents an invaluable asset in that regard.

Thus, Europeans must focus on finessing their communication channels with Japan, both bilaterally as well as at the EU and NATO levels. This will require a sustained political dialogue at the highest level and a stronger European diplomatic presence in Japan, but also greater intelligence and ‘mil-to-mil’ cooperation (including staff and educational exchanges) at the strategic and tactical levels. Critically, a revamped strategic dialogue between Europe and Japan must extend beyond government to engage different sectors of civil society, including academia, research and industry.

Information and personnel exchanges have a strategic component, in that they contribute to enhancing European ‘situational awareness’ (in the Asia-Pacific) and help bring about greater convergence between Europe and Japan in terms of strategic culture. But they also bear a political, ‘confidence building’ component, an ‘operational’, capacity building one, as well as potential spinoffs in terms of technological and industrial cooperation. In other words, they substantiate the otherwise vague idea of a security or strategic partnership.

Secondly, and more specifically, Japan matters to Europe in an Indian Ocean context. The Indian Ocean is central to the security and economic prosperity of Japan and Europe, and constitutes the natural geostrategic meeting point between the two. As such, it offers enormous opportunities for a Europe-Japan strategic dialogue, which should also include the US and India – two key Indian Ocean powers.

Europeans and Japanese have a vested interest in the security of the Indian Ocean’s sea lanes of communication. In this regard, there are numerous areas that offer much potential for cooperation in an Indian Ocean context, including Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, joint surface and subsurface patrols, etc. Europe and Japan should also think harder (and jointly) about how to make the best use of those basing facilities that are critical to underpinning any logistical efforts in the Indian Ocean. Of special importance is the horizontal line constituted by Djibouti (which connects the Red Sea and Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean), Diego Garcia (straddling the western and eastern parts of the Indian Ocean) and Singapore (overlooking the straight of Malacca and serving as the main connecting point between the Indian and Pacific Oceans).

Europe-Japan cooperation in the Indian Ocean must extend beyond the military realm proper. In fact, European and Japanese should work on joint solutions to strengthen the capacities of the coast guards and internal security services of the various countries of the Horn of Africa area and South East Asia. These two areas, which constitute the ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ entry doors into the Indian Ocean, are especially vulnerable to piracy and criminality.

Insofar as they share a vision of the international system, Europeans and Japanese have similar strategic and security interests. Arguably, the US will continue to largely mediate relations between itself, Europe and Japan. Yet, a lot can already be done to boost strategic ties between Japan and Europe. Whether in the Indian Ocean or the Far East, there is much the two can accomplish by working together.

Vol. 7, No. 4 (2015)


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