2024 / 06 / 03 (月)

Guibourg Delamotte "What Is Holding Back France-Japan Cooperation?" (ROLES Commentary No.25)

(Originally published in The Diplomat)
Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio was in Paris in early May to discuss France-Japan cooperation, only a few days before President Xi Jinping from China visited the French capital. France and Japan are long-term partners and share strong cultural mutual kinship and fondness. Yet, on a political level, bilateral relations fail to get closer, notwithstanding an “exceptional partnership.”

France and Japan share a common position on the defense of international law and democracy, in particular in the Indo-Pacific. The Japanese first adopted the mantra of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which became commonly used in Western democracies and minilateral groupings such as the Quad. The French endorsed the phrase and sponsored it in the European Union. The French can even claim to have used and institutionalized the concept of the Indo-Pacific from as far back as the 1940s: an Indopacific Fisheries commission was created then, which existed until the 1970s.

The French government, like the Japanese one, sees the Indo-Pacific as a region where its vital, sovereign interests are at stake, owing to the French overseas territories – Reunion (between Maurice and Madagascar) and Mayotte (between the Comoros and Madagascar), French Polynesia (near the Cook islands), Wallis and Futuna (between Fidji and Samoa), New Caledonia (neighbor to Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Australia), the Southern and Antarctic Lands, and Clipperton (in the North Pacific, more than 1000 kilometers away from Mexico). By virtue of these overseas territories, France actually shares a border with Australia. 1.6 million French citizens live in those territories. They represent 85 percent of France’s EEZ; New Caledonia’s EEZ alone is the size of France, Germany, Spain, and Italy’s land surfaces put together. 

The stakes for France are huge. Small wonder more than 7,000 of its uniformed personnel are deployed over five military commands – three “sovereignty forces” (one in the Indian Ocean, two in the South Pacific) and two “presence forces” (in the United Arab Emirates and Djibouti). 

France and Japan share a similar assessment of the international situation. The two states’ recently adopted cooperation roadmap (2023-2027) emphasizes shared views on the Middle East, Ukraine, North Korea, and Taiwan. Indeed, both countries support Taiwan’s joining international organizations (as a member or with observer status). France’s territories in the Indo-Pacific are members of international groupings, so the notion of autonomous territories having a voice on the world stage is not foreign to the French. Both French Polynesia and New Caledonia recently joined PALM, the Pacific Leaders’ Meeting platform created by Japan. 

Some aspects of France-Japan cooperation have made substantial progress. Military cooperation is one such area, though dealing with the civilian bureaucracy as well as the military one in Japan can prove challenging, according to the French, who are keen on operational cooperation with Japan. Sealing a Reciprocal Access Agreement, such as the ones Japan has signed with Australia and the United Kingdom, would help. The two countries agreed to launch negotiations to that end during Kishida’s visit to Paris on May 2. 

Japan and France held six iterations of the joint bilateral exercise Oguri-Verny in 2022 and 2023, and Japan participated in two editions of the La Pérouse multilateral exercise in August 2022 and March 2023. A Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces escort destroyer conducted joint maneuvers with the French carrier strike group on two occasions in January and February 2023. Two Japanese ships made port calls in France in 2022, and a French aircraft took part in the Japanese naval review in November 2022, according to the May 2023 “2+2” joint statement. In July 2023, the French and Japanese conducted a joint fighter drill as part of Pégase 2023. 

Indeed, France actively engages in military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The French take part in the major multilateral exercises organized by the United States (RIMPAC) and Australia (Talisman Sabre, Kakadu, Pitch Black). France has been patrolling and conducting joint exercises with Vietnam, Australia, Malaysia, and the Philippines on a 3-month mission in the South China Sea each year since 2015. French vessels are in the South China Sea presently, having taken part in Balikatan joint exercises with the Philippine and U.S. navies.

This year, the Pégase 2024 edition will see several European countries joining Pitch Black in Australia together. Typhoons and Rafales from the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) partners – Germany, Spain, and France – will fly toward Alaska together, and back via India. Then the French will meet the British (with whom the French have a non-permanent operational cooperation, the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force) in the Indian Ocean. 

The groundwork would seem to be set for an exceptionally close France-Japan partnership. Nonetheless, France and Japan draw different conclusions from their converging views. 

Japan’s dependence on the United States for its security made the Japan-U.S. alliance a central piece of Tokyo’s strategy, where France’s Gaullist heritage and membership in the EU account in large part for a reluctance to accept alignment with the United States. President Emmanuel Macron sees France as a “balancing power.” 

In the 1980s and 1990s, French thinking on the Indo-Pacific sought to reconcile emerging trade and economic relations with China on the one hand, and on the other technological ties and arms sales with Taiwan. From the outset, the French tried to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable objectives. Macron’s balancing strategy bears the same contradiction. He doubts U.S. President Biden will be re-elected and sees the war in Ukraine as Europe’s most pressing problem. A staunch advocate of European strategic autonomy, he sees China as rather neutral in the conflict, and hopes Paris can seduce Beijing into throwing its weight in and putting an end to the war. But Macron is being naïve. According to one of the statements he made during Xi’s visit, China committed to him personally to stop supporting Russia militarily a year ago. 

Nonetheless, France make concerted efforts to stay on China’s good side. For example, Chinese “gray zone” activities in the South China Sea – recently decried as “illegal, coercive, aggressive, and deceptive” by a Filipino general – were not mentioned in the Macron-Xi joint statement of May 9. Astonishingly, neither was the Indo-Pacific.  

By contrast, the Japanese government has been emphasizing, as NATO has, how linked the European and Asian strategic theaters are. Japan’s unease is embodied in the issue of Taiwan. 

The 2+2 summit meeting of May 9 in Paris and Roadmap for France-Japan cooperation were both drafted at the same time, before the G-7 Hiroshima summit. Both documents reemphasize “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” note that France and Japan “have called for a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues,” and affirm that “[t]he fundamental position of the two countries on Taiwan remain unchanged.” There was a reason this needed to be said at length at this particular juncture.

One month earlier Macron had visited China. On the plane flying him back, in a conversation with three journalists, the French president talked of European strategic autonomy and was quoted as saying Europe must not get dragged into other nations’ wars – making particular mention of a China-U.S. conflict over Taiwan.  This caused alarm in Tokyo, especially when the French also opposed the idea of a NATO liaison office opening in Tokyo. 

Naturally, insisting on the status quo and a peaceful settlement does not mean Macron would not defend Taiwan in the event of a war. All states withhold from saying exactly what they would do in the event of a war, but they also refrain from saying that they would not do. Still, the blunder was impossible to correct.

The French position of claiming a form of neutrality while being a member of NATO and often sharing U.S. assessments of international crises is hard to understand. As a result, much of France’s military commitment is lost on Japan. To Macron, there is no contradiction: force deployment provides weight, and therefore credibility, to his diplomacy. This perception gap is what hinders deeper cooperation.  

The French and Japanese have been holding consultations on cybersecurity for seven years, and a “comprehensive maritime dialogue” for two. But a 2016 agreement on the joint development of defense systems and technology has led nowhere so far. The French have been hoping to sell military equipment to Japan since the 2000s, while the Japanese have mainly been looking for partners to jointly develop weapons systems. 

The British have understood this. Japan’s defense cooperation with the British started at about the same time as Japan’s defense ties with the French, but the former took on an industrial dimension from the start. Japan and the United Kingdom had a first attempt at cooperation on missile systems and are now developing, with Italy, their next generation fighter. Politically as well as strategically, Japan sees eye-to-eye with the United Kingdom. 

By contrast, France’s position isolates it, has become counterproductive, and should be reversed. It is unlikely to be until France’s next presidential elections in 2027.



2024.06.22 (Sat.)

Moves to conduct nuclear tests in China – Image analysis of the Lop Nur nuclear test site – (ROLES SAT ANALYSIS No. 7)


#nuclear test



2024.06.03 (Mon.)

Guibourg Delamotte "What Is Holding Back France-Japan Cooperation?" (ROLES Commentary No.25)



2024.06.01 (土)

南シナ海における中国の活動(ROLES SAT ANALYSIS No. 8)





2024.05.28 (Tue.)

Nakai, Ryo "Lithuania presidential election in 2024 and its implication on East Asia" (ROLES Commentary No.24)

"Liberal Democracies in Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans" Task Force


2024.05.28 (火)

中井遼「リトアニア大統領選挙(2024)が持つ東アジア政治との関係」(ROLES Commentary No. 24)