Japan and the United States have welcomed planned naval deployments this year by major European countries to Indo-Pacific waters, as China's rapid military modernization and maritime and territorial ambitions prompt moves to increase deterrence.
With Beijing demonstrating increasing assertiveness in the East and South China seas and on the India-China border, Britain will deploy the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth and its strike group to East Asia, France will dispatch a naval vessel to Japan and Germany will send a frigate to the Indian Ocean — all planned for 2021, according to government announcements and news reports.
"Japan has potential for further development of defense cooperation with Europe," Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said in an online meeting with his German counterpart Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on Dec. 15.
The development comes amid doubts in Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific about how much of a security threat Europe sees as coming from China as it apparently seeks to shift the status quo in the region in its favor through coercive measures.
However, such concern abated when Kramp-Karrenbauer said, "What happens in the Indo-Pacific affects Germany and Europe. We would like to cooperate in safeguarding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific."
Kishi expressed hope the German warship will take part in exercises with the Self-Defense Forces and sail through the South China Sea, a strategically important waterway largely claimed by China but disputed by smaller regional nations and nonclaimant countries like the United States.
In a rare diplomatic foray by Germany, a country that has stepped cautiously since World War II especially outside the framework of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Kramp-Karrenbauer said, "One must not impose a burden on others in pursuit of economic and security ambitions."
She was making a veiled reference to Beijing's militarization of outposts in disputed areas of the South China Sea — parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — and repeated incursions into waters around the Senkaku Islands, a group of East China Sea islets controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.
Serious concerns about China's dismissal of pro-democracy lawmakers and crackdowns on democracy activists in Hong Kong, a former British colony, are also thought to have played a role in London's decision to deploy the carrier strike group to the Indo-Pacific.
With Queen Elizabeth-based F-35B fighters from the Royal Air Force likely to undergo maintenance at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. facility in Aichi Prefecture, some experts have speculated Japan is Britain's favored location for a temporary home for the 65,000-ton carrier.
The Royal Navy's newest and largest warship is also expected to carry a squadron of U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs.
Given that the America, a 45,000-ton amphibious assault ship based in Sasebo, southwestern Japan, carries Marine Corps F-35Bs, Michito Tsuruoka, an associate professor of international security and European politics at Keio University, expects U.S. and British forces to test joint operations involving F-35Bs in the western Pacific, a mission the two allies have conducted repeatedly in the Atlantic.
"The United States and Britain are not only testing synergies but they are likely to promote the eventual integration of military operations in the western Pacific, which I think is the main military purpose of the dispatch of the Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific," Tsuruoka said in an interview.
Citing Japan's plan to refit two Izumo-class helicopter carriers so they can carry F-35Bs, he said, "It would make sense for Japan, the United States and Britain to conduct joint exercises involving these assets and enhance interoperability of the three forces."
In a similar development, Japan, the United States and France will conduct amphibious training on an uninhabited island in southwestern Japan in May, the Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported on Dec. 6, as Beijing steps up attempts to undermine Tokyo's administration of the Senkakus, called Diaoyu in China.
Besides the China factor, defense analysts attributed growing Japan-Europe ties to European players' interest in selling arms to Japan, the world's third-largest economy, whose defense spending has consistently rewritten record highs in recent years in the face of the security challenges posed by China and North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.
In November 2019, Japan and Britain organized the first defense equipment fair near Tokyo with about 50 Japanese and 100 foreign arms manufacturers, including BAE Systems PLC and Rolls-Royce PLC of Britain, taking part. A second such exhibition is slated for May 19-21 this year.
Meanwhile, some analysts cited Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's perceived reluctance to provoke China — apparently in consideration of Tokyo's deep economic ties with Beijing and pro-China ruling party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai, who effectively handed him the premiership — as a source of concern about otherwise firmer security cooperation involving Japan, the United States and Europe in the Indo-Pacific.
"Tokyo says it welcomes more of a European naval presence in the region, but media reports have indicated the possibility of downsizing and downgrading the exercises involving the United Kingdom and France for fear of provoking China," Tsuruoka said. "Japan does not seem to have a clear idea of what it is prepared and willing to do with the British and French navies, which could perplex them."
Nonetheless, the China factor is likely to propel security ties between Europe and Japan, the United States, Australia and India — four major regional democracies known as the Quad — but experts expressed reservations about the idea of institutionalizing and expanding the Quad.
"I do not think it would be efficient to try to expand the Quad formally into a larger grouping, particularly with European powers who have a smaller range of common interests on a day-to-day level," said Andrew Oros, a professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in the United States.
"Looser cooperation that stresses a common, unified agenda among a growing group of countries toward the goals of a free and open Indo-Pacific should be encouraged and welcomed," Oros said in an email, noting some European countries are looking to contribute to freedom of navigation exercises.
He added Europeans "could make a big difference" by curbing defense-related exports and potential military technology transfer to Beijing as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office on Jan. 20 with a greater emphasis on America's alliances and multilateralism in the midst of U.S.-China strategic competition.
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