Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera (left) and his French counterpart Florence Parly inspect an honor guard at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo on January 27, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Eugene Hoshiko / Pool

During talks in Tokyo last weekend, the defense and foreign ministers of Japan and France agreed to step up bilateral cooperation to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Tokyo has in Paris a sympathetic interlocutor when it comes to counter China’s military clout. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking better ties with Beijing, but at the same time is working to establish a front of like-minded countries to deter the Chinese giant. For its part, France considers China’s naval presence from the Gulf of Aden to the Pacific a strategic challenge to its role in the region.

In a joint statement, the two parties voiced concern about the situation in the East and South China seas, where China is trying to modify the status quo to the detriment of other countries, and expressed opposition to any unilateral action that could increase tensions in both areas.

In the East China Sea, Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands is disputed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands. The Japanese government’s worries about China’s naval operations in the contested waters have increased after its navy recently detected a Chinese nuclear submarine near the uninhabited islets.

Tokyo and Paris have also condemned island-building activities, including the construction of military outposts, in the disputed South China Sea, delivering an indirect rebuke to Beijing.

Naval exercises, technology collaboration

Japan and France will focus on naval cooperation and joint development of arms systems to improve their security partnership. Tokyo is pursuing the same path to bolster military relations with Britain, another “non-regional” partner.

Japanese and French leaders announced last Friday that their countries’ navies would conduct joint exercises in February. It will be the first time that the two naval forces hold bilateral drills. In the past, they participated only in multilateral operations, notably with the United States and Britain.

France will send to Japan its frigate Vendemiaire, currently stationed in New Caledonia, one of its overseas dependencies in the South Pacific. The joint exercises will also see the involvement of ground troops.

Regarding technology collaboration and defense equipment, Tokyo and Paris will work together to develop next-generation minesweeping technology and an unmanned underwater vehicle. As well, a Japanese X-band defense communication satellite will be launched from French Guiana in March. It will fly aboard a French Arianespace rocket.

Shared vision on China

In a joint press conference with her Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said France and Japan shared views on the geopolitical situation in East Asia. In a blow to China, which opposes any type of interference by “external” forces in East Asian affairs, Parly said her country would continue to deploy naval vessels in the Indo-Pacific region for freedom of navigation operations.

The French government believes that patrol missions in areas such as the South China Sea will help its navy maintain a regular and visible presence in all maritime domains.

According to France’s National Defense and Security Strategy, which was reviewed last year, the China Seas are the primary theaters of Beijing’s power projection. French strategists emphasize that China is strengthening its naval capabilities with the aim of turning the South China Sea into a Chinese “sanctuary.” They believe the expansion of China’s naval reach from the Pacific Rim westward through the Indian Ocean to East Africa will have implications for France’s security.

Combining forces to contain China

Paris views itself as a legitimate actor in the Indo-Pacific arena. It is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and has overseas dependencies in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific endowed with massive exclusive economic zones.

As an Indo-Pacific power, France’s primary interest is to protect its territories and citizens in the macro-region. On the other hand, as a European country, France is committed to ensuring freedom of navigation and trade along the Indo-Pacific routes linking Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.

The problem is that, just like Britain, France does not have a naval force capable of changing the security equation in the Indo-Pacific area. At the moment, it can deploy only one of its Mistral-class helicopter landing decks, escorted by one or two frigates, to patrol Indian Ocean and Pacific waters. This is hardly a naval formation that could worry the People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet.

However, in combination with the naval forces of the United States, as well as those of regional partners such as India, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and Japan, the French Navy could actually help contain China’s military assertiveness. In this scenario, the UK’s Royal Navy could play a role too. The Abe administration is presumably taking steps in that direction while deepening military ties with Paris and London.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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