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New paths for strategic cooperation in East-Asia

By Xavier Pasco
Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique, Paris, France
August 03, 2017

Over the recent years, European nations, and France among them, have increased their perception of the importance of regional dynamics in Asia, and most notably of the key role Japan can play in helping regulating it. Indeed, many first-rate strategic issues have recently developed in the region that may affect the world and its order as we know it. To name a few: the developments in North Korea regarding ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons; the South China sea dispute, (especially in the aftermath of the legal decision made in July 2016 by the permanent court of arbitration in the Hague, the UN appointed tribunal that rules in international disputes over maritime territory, that declared illegal the appropriation of small islands by China in the area); or the developments of anti-ballistic missile defenses supported by the United States in the region.

In the meantime, the new presidency of Donald Trump has added as a new variable to the equation, with a general view of a relatively unpredictable future U.S. foreign policy. While Premier Shinzo Abe has been the first foreign leader to be received by President Trump, and at a time when the U.S. have increased the pressure on the North Korean leadership to warn against any deliberate use of nuclear force, the regional situation as well as possible outputs have remained unclear. The posture of China is yet to be fully assessed and it is clear that decisions made by this country will be highly dependent on the strategic path followed by the U.S.

A recent trip to Tokyo (thanks to the support of the ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan ) and several visits paid to high-ranking officials as well as to prominent academics have convinced me that in this context, and as many other nations in the world, Japan has been setting up a more comprehensive security policy that can be enriched by renewed and reinforced alliances with its international partners. This clearly echoes European views at a time when, as seen from Europe, the resurgence of possible strategic-level showdowns in its neighborhood has made collective security, whether through NATO or via a nascent Defense policy built for the European Union, the hot issue of the day. The developments in Ukraine for the control of Donbass and Crimea, but also the developments in the middle-East, and more largely world-wide security issues that can put European assets at stake have recalled the Europeans the need for strong alliances that must go beyond the traditional partnerships and must involve a creative foreign and security policy.

In a sense, the Japanese and European views can be seen as rather complementary with possible short and medium term mutual gains. For example, this can be the case in the field of maritime security with common interests in helping keeping the seas safe and secure, with the goal to better contribute to maritime collective security. The use of high-tech space-based remote sensing techniques has been emerging as an area for further possible cooperation. Respective space assets but also an increased cooperation in data sharing are promising possible developments that both highlight technical domains of competences and seem to enjoy in Japan and in Europe a sustained political support. France in particular has been developing the TRIMARAN system which consists in a user-friendly interface for governmental maritime users that can harness available capabilities when necessary. This program has been particularly supported by the French governmental users and may pave the way for setting up efficient cooperative maritime links between France and Japan as a first step.

It is noticeable that space can also be mentioned as allowing such data sharing, based on similar political assessments of upcoming risks and threats in orbit. In this domain, France is one of the few European countries having at its disposal radars and optical installations in order to have a better picture of and monitor space objects on an autonomous basis. More than a decade ago, French authorities have decided that such a capability was key to keep the nation as a first-order space actor with a capacity to act on its own. The increase of the risk, linked to the multiplication of orbital debris capable of destroying satellites, as well as evolving threats with nascent offensive military programs worldwide and more generally the multiplication of satellites of all size, are given facts that cannot be escaped. Beyond its own national means, France is cooperating with partner countries among which the United States have been in the first place. For any country, sharing data with other national systems is essential to enhance its own space surveillance systems and can even be seen as forming an element of a global cooperative architecture for monitoring space objects and guarantee a better protection of existing satellites.

In this respect, prospects for a future Franco-Japanese cooperation in this area may be very timely as Japan seems to have similar objectives in the field of space surveillance. A future space monitoring capability run by the Ministry of defense of Japan in the next years may be key for enhancing bi-lateral relationships in this domain with mutual benefits for the partners. Obviously, such a bi-lateral cooperation must be seen as a complement of national systems and of others bi-lateral links that have been set up by France and Japan, especially with the United States. The diversification of the information as well as the geographic distribution of the sensors, in the US, in Europe and in East-Asia makes obviously a lot of sense from a technical standpoint. Thus, already important domains can be identified for enhancing the political and strategic relationship between the two countries, and more largely between Japan and Europe.

No need to say that such developments would come at the right time, i.e. when the international scene and the future strategic balance have rarely been so much unpredictable!

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