The EU and Japan have big plans to intensify and institutionalize cooperation in international politics and security. A bilateral agreement, through which such increased and institutionalized cooperation is envisioned to take place is the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA). The SPA will cover cooperation in regional and global politics and security and is envisioned to give the e.g. current EU-Japan ad-hoc on the ground non-military security cooperation an institutional framework.
To be sure, even without the SPA Brussels and Tokyo have over recent years stepped up concrete and indeed very result-oriented cooperation in Central Asia, Africa and elsewhere. While such European-Japanese cooperation might not produce headlines in the international press, it is nonetheless significant and evidence that Brussels and Tokyo are able to pool resources and adopt joint policies and action. In August 2012 e.g., the EU deployed a civilian CSDP mission to provide training and advice to Niger’s security sector. In December 2014, Tokyo decided to provide grant aid through the UN Development Program to that EU CSDP mission in Niger. In that context Japan is currently contributing significant funds for wireless communication devices to connect regional government offices with bureaus under their jurisdiction, as well as wireless-equipped vehicles for patrolling in various locations in Niger’s seven administrative regions. In April 2014 then, the EU dispatched a civilian CSDP mission to Mali, aimed at improving the country’s security capabilities. A year later in March 2015, Japan started contributing to the same mission, providing grant aid for the rehabilitation of Mali’s national police school.
The EU-Japan plan is to adopt the SPA together with a bilateral EU-Japan free trade agreement and if we believe policymakers in both Brussels and Tokyo the adoption of both agreements is imminent. And then what? The SPA, it was announced numerous times over recent years, will render EU-Japan on the ground cooperation in Afghanistan, in the Gulf of Aden, Mali, Niger and elsewhere more efficient, more frequent and more recognizable as joint soft power contributions in a world more and more prone to armed conflict. While the SPA has yet to be adopted, EU-Japan cooperation in international politics and security could in the months and years become more important and relevant against the background of potentially fundamentally changing U.S. foreign and security policies under U.S. President Donald Trump.
However, whether Brussels and Tokyo will jointly and in view of a possible partial U.S. disengagement from international security issues, conflicts and areas of direct interest to the EU and Japan step up to the plate of jointly addressing international conflicts remains yet to seen. Indeed, there are many doubts that Japan is planning to count on the EU as a contributor to security issues and concerns on the top of Tokyo’s security policy agenda. In fact, Tokyo under the very pro-defence Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is much more interested in hard than soft security and where he really wants EU support and contributions to Japan security are the East and South China Seas. And that is not – at least not yet –the kind of support the EU is willing to commit itself to.
Unless Brussels is – against the background of Chinese territorial expansionism in the South China Sea – deciding to follow-up on its timid verbal opposition against Beijing building civilian and military facilities on islands also claimed by a number of other countries with concrete action (such as e.g. joint patrol missions in the South China as suggested by French Defence Minister Le Drian in June 2016).
While Tokyo and Brussels have on at least two occasions over the last 18 months expressed their joint opposition against China occupying disputed islands in the South China Sea and building civilian and military facilities on them, the EU and its policymakers made sure that such joint statements would not be interpreted as Brussels taking sides in Asian territorial disputes.
From a European (business) perspective making sure not to jeopardize business and investment interests in China is seemingly (much) more important than reminding Beijing not to ignore international norms and rulings in Asia’s disputed territorial waters. Brussels’ reluctance to call a spade a spade and urge Beijing not to treat the entire South China as its private property (like it clearly does) notwithstanding, bilateral defence relations between Tokyo and European countries such as the UK and France have been expanded over the last two years. In January 2014, France and Japan held their first ministerial-level foreign affairs/defence ministers (2 plus 2) meeting. During the second French-Japanese 2 plus 2 meeting in 2015, respective foreign and defence ministers discussed the so-called ‘Plan of Action for Africa’, which included the possibility of joint border security actions in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso and joint peacekeeping policies and missions in Africa. In July 2014, Paris and Tokyo signed a memorandum of understanding (MOE) to increase cooperation in the area of defence, including the joint development of military equipment. This is envisioned to among others include the joint development of unmanned underwater vehicles.
In April 2012, Tokyo and London signed a first joint weapons development agreement which in July 2013 was followed-up by two additional British-Japanese agreements – 1. the so-called ‘Defence Equipment Cooperation Framework’ to facilitate joint development of military equipment and 2. the ‘Information Security Agreement’, aimed at facilitating increased cooperation in the area of intelligence. This resulted in among others British-Japanese joint developments of chemical and biological warfare suits and cooperation in the area of missile technology. In May 2014, London and Tokyo initiated negotiations on a Bilateral Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), which foresees the provision of logistical, material and technical support for each other’s armed forces. Finally, British and Japanese armed forces have increased the frequency of military exercises and Tokyo and London in January 2015 held their first 2 plus 2 plus meeting (respective foreign and defence ministers’ meeting).
The expansion of non-military security cooperation with the EU can of course be complementary with the currently ongoing expansion of Tokyo’s hard security defence ties with the U.S., UK, France, Australia, India, Vietnam and others. However, but it still remains a matter of priorities and so far the Abe government has clearly prioritized the development of its regional security and military ties in Tokyo’s geographical neighbourhood. Indeed, there are no indications that ‘soft power’- style EU-Japanese non-military security cooperation as foreseen in the above-mentioned SPA can make it anywhere near the top of Prime Minister Abe’s security and defence policy agenda in the years ahead.
Axel Berkofsky, Professor at the University of Pavia, Italy and Senior Associate Research Fellow at ISPI