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Europe should work with Japan on Asia security

Tokyo and EU member states have a shared commitment to international law

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It is time for Europe to see that maritime security in Southeast Asia has international legal consequences.   © Reuters

In March, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe toured France, Germany, Italy and Belgium with the primary aim of shoring up the prospects of a trade pact with the European Union that has been under negotiation since 2014. The overarching objective of Abe's visit was to underscore Japan's support for freer trade amid rising protectionist sentiment.

But while trade headlined the trip, Tokyo is also looking to the 28-country EU and its large member states for greater attention to Asia-Pacific security issues. This is especially true in the light of provocations by North Korea in recent months. Japan also continues to be concerned by Beijing's destabilizing activities in the East and South China seas.

Abe stressed the importance of bolstering security cooperation with EU officials in Brussels and with leaders of several European states. Abe and French President Francois Hollande agreed on the importance of freedom of navigation and open seas, and pledged to undertake joint naval drills in the future. Tokyo and Brussels confirmed broad agreement on the importance of international norms and laws in the maritime domain.

But Tokyo remains concerned about the level and prioritization of security relations within Japan's broader relationships with Europe, the lack of European engagement in dealing with the problems posed to Japan by China, and the approach from Brussels, as well as some individual EU states, to security flashpoints in East Asia.

An example of this was the EU's underwhelming response to a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which concluded that there is no legal basis for China's extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Brussels called for the ruling to be respected, but stopped short of urging its full implementation. European countries have also been less than attentive to destabilizing activities in the Korean peninsula and the East China Sea.

Why is this the case? Essentially, there is concern in Tokyo that Europe is unwilling to commit a meaningful presence -- both in diplomatic and military terms -- to the region to demonstrate a united approach in support of international rules and norms, such as the freedom of navigation.

A large part of this is due to geography and the belief in many states in Europe that security problems in Asia -- while significant -- are unlikely to have a critical impact on their own safety. There is more to it than this however. There is also a palpable degree of concern in Europe about the potential for economic reprisals from China in response to European involvement in the region's security developments.

The EU and its member states have largely made only rhetorical and non-specific pledges of support for upholding the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the maritime domain. Brussels released a "Global Strategy" policy paper for foreign and security policy last year, but the document did little to temper concerns in Japan and other states in East Asia that Brussels has no desire to involve itself more in Asian security dynamics. There are only passing references to the Korean peninsula and maritime disputes in East Asia.

Principled engagement

How can European states and Japan enhance their cooperation on maritime security? First, while the EU -- as an institution -- has not been effective as a security player in East Asia, some EU member states, especially the United Kingdom and France, have demonstrated a more principled engagement, and have bolstered their cooperation with states like Japan. It will be increasingly important to build on these bilateral "security hubs."

The U.K., for example, has placed a strong emphasis on its defense relationship with Japan, and conducted the first-ever joint exercise between the Royal Air Force and Japan's Air Self-Defense Forces last year. London and Tokyo also inked a defense logistics-sharing pact last year that allows the two sides to share equipment, facilities and services, removing the need for individual agreements on a case-by-case basis. The U.K. has also acknowledged that Japan is its "most important security partner" in the Asia-Pacific.

Second, defense relations with France have also been improving. Paris and Tokyo agreed in March to undertake full-scale military joint exercises in the coming months, and pledged to explore the possibilities of providing capacity-building assistance together for coastal states in the Indo-Pacific region in such fields as maritime security and counterterrorism.

Third, despite different strategic impressions on the impact of the security situation in East Asia, both sides share democratic values and are committed to adherence to international law. This has been -- and should continue to be -- the foundation of their relationship. Japan must press the EU and its member states not to lose perspective on this issue, and to stand up for their principles -- especially as they relate to the South China Sea, for example.

Fourth, European states should look at how they can cooperate with Japan on the provision of critical maritime capacity building to states in Southeast Asia -- including the enhancement of coast guard forces and the training and exchange of officers. This can be done in a manner that avoids duplication and shares best practices with other likeminded partners in the region, such as Australia, the U.S. and India.

Simply put, it is time for the EU and many of its member states to realize that maritime security problems in the region have international legal consequences. The same is true with state reactions to binding rulings such as the arbitration ruling in The Hague, even though there is no legal mechanism for enforcement of the judgment. A bolstered maritime security relationship with Tokyo -- Europe's prime security interlocutor in the area -- is the natural start.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a senior fellow specializing in East Asia at the EastWest Institute, an organization focused on conflict resolution, in New York.

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