What’s Next for EU-Japan Security Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific?

December 2022 was a historic month for Japan’s foreign affairs. By targeting an increase of defence spending from 1% of its annual budget to 2% over the next 5 years and publishing new defence and security strategies, Japan is reacting to Asia’s new regional security environment. With new defence capabilities and a growing willingness to cooperate with “like-minded countries”, it is thereby making headway to become a stronger security actor in the region.

At the same time, the EU “intends to reinforce its role as a cooperative partner in the Indo-Pacific” in terms of security and defence and to “strengthen synergies” with other countries, as stated in the 2021 Council conclusions of the EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Japan can be considered as one of the EU’s strongest allies in East Asia, having signed several agreements like the Economic Partnership Agreement over the last years. Also in the realm of security, both have a history of working closely together, mainly on the maritime front. As both partners have expressed their willingness to increase cooperation in security, the question remains where the most likely potential lies for further engagement between them.

Maritime and Cyber Security as major fields of EU-Japanese security engagement

Japan works regularly with the EU on maritime security, for example through EU NAVFOR, where they have undertaken many joint exercises and port calls off the coast of Somalia since 2014, with the most recent one in October 2021. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force has been providing their ships for these missions to hinder piracy to flourish again in this region. Outside this Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission, Japan also participates in the EU-funded project CRIMARIO, offering their expertise to train partner countries on maritime security through training and capacity-building activities. 

In the field of cybersecurity, both sides hold regular talks through various channels like the Cyber Dialogue or the ICT Policy Dialogue. Recently, the EU and Japan signed a Digital Partnership agreement to increase engagement in the digital sphere, including cybersecurity. In addition, both sides work together with other partner countries to converge their policies on cybersecurity and strengthen their abilities to withstand cyber attacks through for instance the EU-funded program “Enhancing Security Cooperation In and With Asia”

What the EU and Japanese security strategies have in common

When the EU and Japan published their Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2018, it included many security-related areas. Besides maritime security and cybersecurity, these involved the promotion of peace and security, crisis management, non-proliferation in terms of weapons of mass destruction and conventional arms, and counterterrorism. Nevertheless, concrete plans of action have remained opaque, mostly promising further cooperation and dialogue on specific subjects or the promotion of international regulation like UNCLOS in the context of maritime security. 

However, since 2018 the security environment in the Indo-Pacific has drastically changed, with China asserting a more powerful role and the Russian invasion of Ukraine reframing the role of Russia on the global stage. Compared to their 2013 strategy, Japan’s latest security strategy has altered the role and perception of several of its neighbouring countries. China is now being considered the “greatest strategic challenge” for Japan, while in 2013 China’s actions were only deemed as “an issue of concern”. The EU’s joint communication on the Indo-Pacific strategy of September 2021 still frames the region as having “intense competition” and stipulates that “tensions” are not in the interest of the EU. Comparing the EU’s joint communication with the Japanese strategy paper in terms of their security interests and especially those areas of security where both sides see potential of working together with other countries reveals in which areas EU-Japan cooperation is the most likely. This approach to analyse common security interests shows the potential for security fields where previous cooperation was only limited and where closer ties make sense.

In general, both sides frame themselves as wanting the Indo-Pacific to remain an open playing field for everyone, using terms like the “rules-based international order” in Europe and the promotion of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) in Japan’s context. Focusing on security, both partners share their interest of promoting cooperation with allies on maritime security, specifically on anti-piracy measures and freedom of navigation. Japan specifically mentions the South China Sea in terms of international cooperation while the EU wants to establish Maritime Areas of Interest in the Indo-Pacific through its Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) concept. Through the CMP, EU member states provide their naval and air assets on a voluntary basis to areas deemed important. While there are more similarities in several security fields, an increased maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific is the most pronounced concept in both strategy papers.

Another field of common interest is arms control. Both partners see nuclear arms as well as biological and chemical weapons as a threat and promote their non-proliferation with the help of international partners, based on major non-proliferation agreements like the NPT at the UN level. On counterterrorism, they both want to participate in advanced information-sharing with their partners. Both sides also share similar views on peace- and stability-related missions. Japan would like to continue participating in peacekeeping through the dispatching of personnel and capacity-building efforts on the ground, while the EU would like to include more Indo-Pacific partners in their CSDP missions. 

The way to go in EU-Japanese security relations 

On arms control, both sides are committed to further bilateral consultations as stipulated in the last EU-Japan summit in May 2022, especially regarding nuclear weapons. With the current international environment being more tense and Western-Russian ties at a low-point, enforcing major treaties involving Russia is obviously harder too. For example, the New START Treaty between the US and Russia was recently weakened by Russia deciding to no longer publish their data. This makes the situation even more difficult as nuclear arsenal inspections were already suspended. As the US recently published their data anyway, Japan and the EU could work together to address this issue more prominently at the multilateral level and to force Russia to rethink its position, as nobody benefits from an unclear non-proliferation treaty.

International terrorism on European or Japanese soil has moved slightly to the background and is less prominent now compared to several years ago but it is in the interest of both partners to maintain a status quo. For example, several EU CSDP missions like in Niger, Mali, Libya, and Kosovo include counterterrorism mandates. Besides existing EU-Japan information-sharing initiatives, both sides can work more closely together on jointly executing such missions in the future. The EU is eager to include Indo-Pacific actors, while Japan is already a close partner through its participation in EU NAVFOR and its willingness to cooperate in peacekeeping. This could offer new opportunities for close cooperation and engagement in the field of counterterrorism by fulfilling the interest of both sides on the ground and sharing the burden of personnel.

While EU-Japan maritime cooperation is already going strong, both partners recently wanted to double down on joint exercises in March 2023 by signing an administrative agreement. While not specifying whether that would refer to EU NAVFOR or participation in other operations, the CMP concept could entail a next step in maritime security cooperation. Currently, the Gulf of Guinea and the North Western Indian Ocean are the two main Maritime Areas of Interest. Japan recently invested in an anti-piracy project through the UNDP in the Gulf of Guinea. And as the North Western Indian Ocean is close to Somalia, this could be a logical next step for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force to expand its scope. Both geographic areas can be options for expanded cooperation between the EU and Japan in the short- and middle-term. 

Both the EU and Japan promote a free and open Indo-Pacific. Given that the South China Sea is one of the most important shipping routes in the world, securing these sea lanes is a quintessential matter for Japan and the EU. However, due to ongoing disputes and tensions in the region, increased security cooperation in the South China Sea could be rather challenging. Based on the concept of freedom of navigation in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the EU Special Envoy for the Indo-Pacific recently proposed naval visits and joint military training exercises in the region. Some EU Member States are already active or have a presence in the South China Sea, like Germany which has done some joint military exercises with Japan in 2021. The South China Sea could become a future area for increased international engagement, even though it has not been explored  as much at the EU level yet. In this regard, protecting free navigation in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific overall could be a potential field for increased future cooperation between the EU and Japan. 

To conclude, there are several security fields where Japan and the EU share similar visions for the Indo-Pacific. As their relations have been steadily reinforced since 2018 and the world has become a more challenging place since, advancing security cooperation seems to be a viable course of action. The upcoming EU-Japan summit foreseen in the second half of 2023 could serve as a good platform to launch further security-related initiatives. Advancing Japanese participation in CSDP missions and helping to restore the New START agreement should be regarded as attainable goals for the short-term, as are cooperation and exchange of technology and best practices in the field of cyber security.

Author: Adrian Glaz, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons