Alarmed by China’s rising power, its frictions with neighboring countries in the East and South China seas, allegations of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region and crackdowns in Hong Kong, European countries are seeking to step up their involvement in the Indo-Pacific region.

The European Union announced last month that it will unveil its strategy for the Indo-Pacific in September. Most recently, France carried out a joint military exercise in southern Japan along with the host nation, the United States and Australia. Germany and the United Kingdom will also dispatch a frigate and an aircraft carrier, respectively, to the region later this year.

Officials in Tokyo, who have long lobbied European partners to be more active in the geopolitical hot spot, are welcoming their renewed interest. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said this month that increased participation by European nations “will lead to regional peace and stability.”

In order to take advantage of the growing common ground, Tokyo now needs to show leadership by setting out a long-term, detailed roadmap for cooperation that will cement the European countries' presence in the area.

“Tokyo is often asking Europeans to step up their engagement in the region, but, at the same time, it does not provide concrete proposals,” said Celine Pajon, a research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris. “Japan thus should more clearly state its expectations.”

Points of leverage

The relationship between China and Europe became closer in the early 2010s, when several European countries saw ballooning debt and faced the risk of defaulting. China was credited for buying up junk eurozone bonds worth billions of euros. Meanwhile, motivated to forge strong ties in the areas of investment and trade, the U.K. stepped up its engagement with Beijing, with then-British Prime Minister David Cameron describing relations as being in “a golden era.”

Gen Nakatani, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight who was appointed defense minister in December 2014, recalled in an interview last week that European nations were still drawn to the windfall that came with enhanced business ties with China when he took the post. But at the same time, Japan was becoming increasingly uneasy over China’s land reclamation projects in the South China Sea, especially around the Spratly Islands.

“Even if Japan constantly explained (China’s threats), they apparently thought it’s a matter concerning Asia that had nothing to do with them,” Nakatani said.

For Japan, the land reclamation projects were a potential threat to free navigation in the South China Sea. Using that concern as leverage, Tokyo attempted to reach out to European countries to stress the importance of this, especially considering that France has territories in the Indo-Pacific and the region is seeing some of the fastest economic growth globally.

French soldiers walk away from a Chinook helicopter during a joint military drill between the Self-Defense Forces, French army and U.S. Marines at the Kirishima exercise area in Ebino, Miyazaki Prefecture, on Saturday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
French soldiers walk away from a Chinook helicopter during a joint military drill between the Self-Defense Forces, French army and U.S. Marines at the Kirishima exercise area in Ebino, Miyazaki Prefecture, on Saturday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Recognizing the importance of drawing prominent European countries into Asia-Pacific region, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed Nakatani shortly after his appointment to hold the first-ever meeting between Japanese and British foreign and defense ministers — so-called two-plus-two talks. Nakatani said the objective was to discuss defense cooperation and joint military drills.

Nakatani, along with then-foreign minister Fumio Kishida, traveled to the U.K. the following month to meet their counterparts and issued a joint statement that mentioned “the importance of peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the South China Sea.” Nakatani also took part in similar talks with France in March 2015.

“There had not been a mechanism (between Japan and Europe) through which ministers, foreign and defense, would visit each other’s country, hold a meeting and announce a communique together,” he said. “Such a system has been in place for more than five years and put down deep roots. … What lies at the foundation is an understanding that unless international law and universal values such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights are maintained, the current world order and economic activities can’t be sustained.”

As time has gone by, European countries have grown skeptical of China’s intentions when it comes to deeper economic relationships.

Mergers and acquisitions of European companies by Chinese firms, especially in Germany, have alarmed national security authorities since around 2017, due to fears around the leaking of sensitive technology. More reports of human rights abuse against ethnic minorities, most notably Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and China’s initial response to the coronavirus have caused more concern, while a brutal crackdown on dissidents in Hong Kong, a former British colony, engendered mistrust over China’s promise to uphold the principle of “one country, two systems” in the territory.

Taking a stand

Both individually and collectively, European nations have moved to firm up their commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, taking Japan as a crucial partner to advancing that goal.

In mid-April, Japan carried out its first two-plus-two talks with Germany. During the meeting, the German side explained the deployment of its navy frigate to the Indo-Pacific region, expected around this summer, and the Japanese side floated the idea of joint exercises — with China in mind. Despite domestic caution about sending troops overseas and the fact it does not have territories in Asia, the deployment is “epoch-making,” a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said this month.

Last September, the German government unveiled its policy guidelines for the region, which set out the country’s “great interest in participating in Asia’s growth dynamics and in being involved in shaping the Indo-Pacific region.” It listed multilateralism, the rules-based international order and human rights among its key organizing principles for its policy in the region.

France, meanwhile, is actively taking part in military drills with the Self-Defense Forces. In March, France, the U.S., Belgium and Japan held a naval exercise in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. France also performed a three-day naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal with the so-called Quad countries: the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.

And until Monday, French, American and Japanese troops conducted their first-ever joint drills on Japanese soil, in Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures, training for the defense of a remote island against enemy invasion and urban warfare. The exercise followed a French training fleet's tour of the Indo-Pacific region. The three countries also went ahead with another round of exercises in the East China Sea with Australia.

The series of exercises are reflections of “the credibility of the French engagement in the Indo-Pacific, to discourage faits accomplis and stand by its partners,” Pajon of IFRI said.

State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama, French Ambassador to Japan Philippe Setton and Australian Ambassador to Japan Jan Adams pose for pictures during a joint military drill between the Self-Defense Forces, French army and U.S. Marines, at the Kirishima exercise area in Ebino, Miyazaki Prefecture, on Saturday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama, French Ambassador to Japan Philippe Setton and Australian Ambassador to Japan Jan Adams pose for pictures during a joint military drill between the Self-Defense Forces, French army and U.S. Marines, at the Kirishima exercise area in Ebino, Miyazaki Prefecture, on Saturday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Predictably, China was not pleased. Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, mocked the participants, saying those exercises “will only cost (the countries engaging in the drills) more fuel.”

“Frankly speaking, be it a joint military exercise or a drill, those countries will not exert any influence on China,” she said.

The U.K. is also looking for opportunities to flex its muscles in the region. To capitalize on Brexit economically, the country announced in late January that it would apply to be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and in the realm of national security, Britain is dispatching HMS Queen Elizabeth — its navy's flagship aircraft carrier — along with a carrier strike group to the region.

The British government also underscored the need to strengthen its commitment to the region, which is becoming “increasingly the geopolitical center of the world,” in a recent defense policy review.

Taking a cue from its member states, the European Union, meanwhile, will roll out its new strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific in September. Although Brussels and Beijing agreed on an investment deal in late 2020, the ratification process foundered after China slapped retaliatory sanctions on European Parliament members in response to EU sanctions over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Strategic objectives

Having succeeded in helping to draw Europe’s attention to the Indo-Pacific region, Japan is now expected to spell out specific objectives to consolidate their commitment to the area and build a bulwark against China’s expansionism over the long term. But there are many questions over what they will look like.

“It’s not clear what kind of objective Japan wants to achieve by working with the European forces in Asia,” said Michito Tsuruoka, an associate professor at Keio University and an expert on Europe-Asia relations.

Citing the latest trilateral exercises in Kyushu as an example, Tsuruoka noted Japan was passive when it came to deciding how extensive the drills should be, out of fear of provoking China too much and inducing opposition from local residents over safety concerns.

“If there’s strong political leadership from the Prime Minister’s Office, for example, a lot more can be done,” he said, adding that Tokyo needs to stipulate a clear strategy on how it can maximize European security engagement to complement regional deterrence and set the defense posture of Japan and the Japan-U.S. alliance in stone.

The series of exercises and the dispatch of military vessels exemplifies European countries’ presence in the region and sends a symbolic message over their commitment to the maritime security issues, such as freedom of navigation, that have been incorporated in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept, the senior Foreign Ministry official said.

“The overall direction will be honed each time we carry out an exercise,” the official said.

In terms of each military’s power, there’s a vast difference between the U.S. and European countries such as the U.K. and France. In the case of an emergency in the East China Sea over Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands in Japan, known as the Diaoyu in China, Tokyo will turn to its ally the U.S., not Europe, the official noted.

Asked about whether Europe's presence in the Indo-Pacific region is sustainable, Pajon said, “Europe’s commitment to the region is comprehensive and not limited to a naval presence.”

“The naval presence is a symbolic dimension of it, but maritime security encompasses various dimensions pertaining to nontraditional security, environmental protection (and) ocean governance … that do not need a military involvement,” she said.

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