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Interview: Japan’s military partnership with European countries fraught with challenges

By Hanzawa Naohisa


Associate Professor Tsuruoka Michito

This year, French, British, and German naval vessels called at Japan ports one after another, and the opportunity for joint drills with the Self-Defense Forces stood out. Associate Professor Tsuruoka Michito at Keio University, who specializes in European politics and is also an expert on Japan’s defense policy, reviewed such joint drills and pointed out that Japan faces “many challenges” to strengthen its ties with those countries.


Question: The French government has sounded out Japan on concluding an agreement to facilitate joint drills so that the two countries could ramp up joint training.


Tsuruoka: I expect that is one the ideas that will be proposed. For France, it is a normal procedure to conclude such an agreement with the country with which it will conduct joint training. On the other hand, the legal and political hurdles are too high for Japan to conclude such an agreement.


Question: Why so?


Tsuruoka: Japan has little experience in negotiating such agreements. In addition, the government is concerned about crimes committed by foreign military members as the country has learned a lesson from stationing U.S. forces in Japan. Also, some take the critical view that the conclusion of such an agreement would lead to each sending more and more troops to the other country.


For these reasons, the Japanese government is apparently cautious about concluding a military agreement with a foreign country. Japan’s difficulties in negotiating with Australia have dampened the momentum for bilateral defense cooperation.


Question: What is your evaluation of the French naval vessel’s port visit and the Japan-U.S.-France joint drill? France wanted to hold the drill on an uninhabited island, but it ended up being conducted at a training ground.


Tsuruoka: France seems to think that the three countries might have been able to conduct a drill that was somewhat more practical. The lack of an agreement to facilitate a joint drill also prevented the drill from being conducted more smoothly. At the same time, Japan seems to have a political concern about provoking China.


Question: How was the joint drill with the UK Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth? The Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) had two F35A fighter jets participated over waters to the east of the Kanto Region for only one day during the eight-day training period.


Tsuruoka: The HMS Queen Elizabeth was carrying eight British and ten U.S. F35Bs, which are capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings. The U.K. and the U.S. are beginning to emphasize “substitutability,” the ability to supplement each other’s naval vessels and aircraft when either country is lacking them, and to operate them in unison as if they were their own assets.


With the deployment of the carrier strike group, including the stopover in Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. have demonstrated that they have joint operational capabilities, including the F35B, around the world.


In particular, the U.K. was expecting to conduct a practical drill with Japan, the U.S. and the U.K., including the ASDF’s F35A. However, the ASDF’s participation with its F35A in the joint drill was limited, and Japan participated in a half-hearted manner.


Question: With such a stance, even if the ASDF deploys the F35B, it will not only be unwilling to join the sustainability framework with the U.S. and the UK, but it may also stand on the sidelines of joint operations by the U.S. and the UK in the event of a contingency around Japan.


Tsuruoka: That is a major concern. Japan has been the one emphasizing the threat of China to Europe, but when France and the UK become serious, Japan now appears to be taking a cautious stance.


Japan’s seriousness is being tested, and a lot of homework remains to be done. From next year onward, Japan will also be asked if it will accept port calls from a French nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and a UK nuclear-powered submarine.


Question: In November, Germany also brought a naval vessel to Japan for the first time in about 20 years for a joint drill with the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF).


Tsuruoka: In terms of military force, Germany brought a single frigate, but the political significance of the fact that Germany (which has been emphasizing economic relations with China) had a warship visit Japan is large. 


Question: Will France, the UK and Germany continue their involvement in the Indo-Pacific region in light of the China threat?


Tsuruoka: The three countries’ stance of engagement in the region will remain unchanged. As a partner with shared values, Japan should take full advantage of the involvement of European countries. It is important for Japan to proactively approach them and say, “Let’s do this kind of training together as it is mutually beneficial.”


Japan needs to think not only of the Japan-U.S. alliance, but also of cooperation with various other countries to enhance its defense and deterrence capabilities and to link these capabilities to regional stability. The dichotomy of the U.S.-Japan alliance as one thing and cooperation with other countries is another thing is outdated.

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