Europe looks to Japan for defence pact amid ‘worrying shift’ in regional dynamic

The European Union reportedly plans to seek a security deal with Japan as it looks to boost engagement in the Indo-Pacific to counter China.

The agreement, first reported by Kyodo News last month, could potentially include cooperation on naval exercises in the Indo-Pacific, intelligence sharing and responses to cyberthreats.

But Beijing is not expected to overreact to the plan since – although it has political implications – it is unlikely to have much impact on security in the region, according to observers.

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Song Zhongping, a former instructor with the People’s Liberation Army, said while Europe “keeps a close eye” on the region it is also “beyond reach”.

“Their focus is on Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and Russia, but not China in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “This agreement shows more that there is a political consensus between the two parties, but it will be difficult to implement it.”

Brussels followed Washington to release its own Indo-Pacific strategy in 2021 aiming to strengthen defence ties with allies in the region, where tensions have been rising over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

The EU and the US also held their first-ever joint naval exercise last year, in the Indo-Pacific, and Brussels has proposed sending warships to the Taiwan Strait. The bloc has meanwhile sought to boost defence ties with countries in the region including the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia.

The pact being discussed with Japan is in line with that EU strategy, according to Gorana Grgic, a senior researcher with the Swiss and Euro-Atlantic security team at ETH Zurich University’s Centre for Security Studies.

“The discussions on a security agreement between the EU and Japan are not isolated events but rather part of a comprehensive strategy rooted in the EU’s broader geopolitical interests and its commitment to fostering meaningful partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region,” she said.

Grgic noted that the EU and Japan had held joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, and said the move to expand cooperation showed their shared commitment to addressing regional security challenges.

She said there had been “a worrying shift in the security dynamic” in the region, pointing to China’s military modernisation and “increase in maritime presence and assertiveness”.

‘Likely to agitate China’: European powers step up their Indo-Pacific presence

But Frederick Kliem, an EU and Indo-Pacific expert at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the EU did not have a “meaningful independent security role”.

“The EU does not have any hard assets at its disposal. They rely entirely on individual member states’ forces, which at all times remain ultimately under national control,” he said.

The EU’s defence forces depend on contributions from its member states and have mostly been deployed for peace missions, while Nato is seen as the main alliance to defend European countries. Of the 27 EU nations, 23 are members of the transatlantic security alliance.

But the bloc is trying to become more independent on defence against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, as the US election has raised concerns over Washington’s commitment to Nato.

The US is the biggest contributor to Nato, and Donald Trump – the former president who is set for a rematch with Joe Biden in the November poll – has suggested he would encourage Russia to attack America’s Nato allies if they do not meet their financial obligations to the organisation.

Zhang Baohui, a professor at Lingnan University who specialises in Asia-Pacific affairs, said China was likely to be more concerned about individual European countries making security pacts with Japan than the agreement under discussion.

He gave the example of Japan, Britain and Italy jointly developing a stealth fighter jet.

“These will have far more consequences for China’s security than the EU-Japan security agreement,” he said.

Japan has ramped up security cooperation with Western countries in recent years with an eye on China, Russia and North Korea. In addition to the fighter jet plan, it has strengthened defence coordination with the US and is developing new security deals with Britain and Australia.

Yoichiro Sato, an Asia-Pacific studies professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, said Tokyo was looking to diversify its security partnerships.

“The presence of the Europeans in military diplomacy over the broad Indo-Pacific helps Japan resist the bifurcating force at the international systemic level, which puts pressure on Asian countries – including Japan – to choose sides between the US and China,” Sato said.

“The partnership with Europe also improves Japan’s bargaining power within the US-Japan alliance,” he added.

“The new fighter plane development with the UK and Italy, for example, is a departure for Japan, which previously was confined to licensed production of US-developed equipment and US black-boxing of sensitive technology in joint development.”

Japan to allow fighter jet exports under ‘strict’ conditions

China has hit out at what it calls moves by the US and its allies to form an “Asia-Pacific Nato” that will disrupt regional peace, and increased defence coordination with Russia in response.

Beijing has also repeatedly urged the EU to reject “bloc confrontation” that could trigger a new cold war.

While Beijing and Brussels have increased engagement in the past year, ties continue to be strained by the EU policy of “de-risking” by cutting economic dependence on China, as well as Beijing’s ties with Moscow amid the war in Ukraine.

Zhang from Lingnan University did not expect the Japan security pact to greatly affect EU-China ties since Beijing is trying to minimise conflict while maximising cooperation with the bloc.

Grgic from ETH Zurich said handling its relations with China was a “delicate exercise” for the EU and it needed to be “more assertive on a vast range of areas in keeping with its growing geopolitical nature, while preserving space for cooperation”.

“This ... will continue to be a challenge for both this and the new EU leadership following the EU elections in June,” she added.

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