UK, France / Japan leading on Euro-Asia Security cooperation?


The Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu in French military uniform, c.1867.

This blog has paid close attention to the UK-Japan ‘strategic partnership’ (here, here, here), not least because it is starting to look like the most salient feature of Europe-Asia interaction on security.  In the recent Chatham House conference (opening their five-year UK-Japan Global Seminar), British MP Hugo Swire called Japan Britain’s ‘closest partner in Asia’. His counterpart at the Conference, Hiroaki Fujii, had earlier called the UK ‘Japan’s ‘most important partner in Europe’. Lots of Europeans have ‘strategic’ relations with Japan. The UK-Japan relationship is distinguished by the vigour of a military-strategic strand that has emerged only quite recently.

So is the UK-Japan relationship leading the Euro-Asia security field? What is the competition? The EU makes clear that its Pivot to Asia is about diplomacy and economics, and despite encouragement from the US, it will not have a military-strategic dimension. Lady Ashton repeated this message recently at Shangri-La. Germany is quietly active in Asia on a diplomatic and of course trade level, but similarly clear that it is not in the business of military partnership, let alone Power projection. That leaves France.

France may be one step behind the UK but is showing signs of catching up, viz the bilateral summit between President Hollande and PM Abe in Japan on 7 June. In a meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La dialogue earlier this year,  French and Japanese Defence Ministers disclosed their intentions about strengthening the relationship. The cooperation documents  Hollande exchanged with Abe at the summit in  Tokyo (details here) encompassed cooperation on Nuclear Energy and – more interestingly – Joint development of military technology. Japanese officials pointed out that this kind of cooperation would be the first it had agreed to after its deal with the UK earlier this year. WPR’s Jonathan Berkshire Miller has a good coverage of the agreement here.

It is a bit like the 1860s all over again. ‘Man of Choshu’ Shinzo Abe (in league with Satsuma men) is developing partnerships with European powers France and Britain to overturn the obsolescent national order (revision of arms export principles and post 1945 system in general),  re-establish Japan on the basis of fukoku kyohei (‘rich nation, strong army’) and balance against US domination in the region. Anglo-French competition over influence and markets completes the picture.

Ah yes, markets. France felt the need to reassure Japan on these two related points –

1) ‘Hollande made clear to Abe during the summit that an existing EU ban on arms exports to China, introduced in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, represents the French position on arms exports to the country, according to a Japanese official.’ (link)

2) ‘Friday’s summit comes amid Japanese concern over a deal between France and China that came to light late last year involving the sale of equipment needed for helicopters to land on ships. Tokyo is concerned that such equipment could be used on Chinese surveillance vessels that have been patrolling waters around islands in the East China Sea whose ownership is in dispute between Japan and China’. (link

This is an indicative test of the European engagement in Asian security: how to navigate the China factor in regional security and at the same time strike a balance between the economic and broader political-security interests that are closely linked to.. China. Whether bilaterally or through the EU, Europe’s foreign policy response to the rise of Asia is torn between its identity politics (taking a stand on matters of principle, leverage influence like a pocket superpower) and the more mundane instinct to simply cash in. The approach of the UK and France as distinct from that of the EU and Germany highlight the influence of Asia’s rise on the direction and coherence of European foreign and security policy.

In the 1860s the British and French were quick to take advantage of Japan’s opening and (particularly in the case of Britain) made good use of partnerships with Japan to pursue wider interests in Asia and beyond. For two generations, those partnerships were key to maintaining European empires in Asia until a European war opened a power vacuum in SE Asia, which Japan rushed to fill. Two generations on from that war, we find ourselves reaching out to Japan again. As before, what the European powers do next in Asia – alone and together – will reveal much about the destiny of Europe over coming generations. History may neither repeat nor rhyme, but it suggests that Europe’s relations with Japan are a weathervane.

The Bertin-designed French-built Matsushima, flagship of the Japanese Navy up to the Sino-Japanese conflict.

The Bertin-designed French-builtMatsushima, flagship of the Japanese Navy up to the Sino-Japanese conflict.

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