Japan and France: Ideal Partners for a New Order in East Asia


A New Era for Franco-Japanese Partnership?

This year marks 160 years since the beginning of diplomatic relations between Japan and France. Franco-Japanese ties date back to the Treaty of Amity and Commerce signed in 1858 as Japan abandoned its policy of seclusion and rejoined the international community. At the time, France was regarded as a positive model for Japan’s own modernization. The relationship has grown steadily since then, and today the two countries enjoy a stable partnership. As both countries look to address the new challenges of an evolving global situation, what will be required of the bilateral relationship in the years to come?

Whenever I visit France, I am impressed not only by the marvels of its long and proud history, but by the country’s openness to novelty and innovation. The city of Marseilles has particularly impressed me in recent years. Although I have always felt a personal affection for the place, it has come to have an unfortunate reputation as a city blighted by immigration, unemployment, and crime. But in the last few years, a major redevelopment of the port district that included high-rise buildings designed by famous architects and renovations to existing port facilities has rapidly transformed the city into a popular destination for large cruise ships. Marseilles is looking to build a new identity for itself and hopes to become a major hub on global maritime transport lanes. Ultimately, it would like to become a kind of Mediterranean Shanghai.

Meanwhile, East Asia is also changing at a dramatic rate. The Japanese economy may have slowed down somewhat compared to the heady 1970s and 1980s, but from a wider perspective the East Asian region looks set to establish itself as the predominant center of the world economy, with China at its head. In a region that is home to diverse and often competing ideologies, Japan is one of a handful of Asian countries that share the values and standards of Western European. Because of this, I feel the strategic relationship between Japan and France will continue to grow in importance in the years to come.

The Ambivalent Situation in East Asia

East Asia faces the challenge of reconciling the complicated relationship between existing security structures in the region and its increasingly integrated economies.

From a security perspective, there are a number of developments straining relations in the region. North Korea is engaged in gamesmanship with the United States regarding its nuclear weapons program, a situation that is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, and is steadily improving relations with South Korea. Russia has increasingly shifted its strategic focus toward the Pacific, and in September it asserted its position as a major military player in the region, inviting Chinese premier Xi Jinping to watch it carry out with China its largest military exercises since the Cold War.

The biggest factor of all is China’s unwavering hardline stance on territorial issues, including expansion into international waters, and continues to be a point of contention with neighboring countries. Japan’s interests are intimately intertwined with these countries and the unpredictable geopolitical climate in the region.

Nationalism is on the rise in many countries, with nations tending to prioritize domestic interests and circumstances over international rules and norms, resulting in increased suspicion and distrust among traditional allies. Although none of these factors are likely to lead to open conflict in the immediate future, the international community must work to ensure that incidental friction in East Asia does not grow to be a global risk.

At the same time, economic relationships in the region are closer and more dynamic than ever before, and the growing economic codependence has been a boon for the whole of East Asia. However, as in Europe, the manufacturing sector is struggling as many companies relocate their factories to cheaper location overseas, leading to a hollowing out of industry. The region is also being forced to carry out a wide-reaching reorganization of its industrial structure. Despite these challenges, East Asia is poised to develop into a huge and increasingly integrated economic area, with China at its pinnacle. The region will see increasing movement of people, materials, money, and information across borders. Despite Japan’s relative decline in regional clout, it is safe to assume that it will nevertheless occupy a core position as the East Asian bloc develops into a major new global center. The challenge for Japan, though, will be defining exactly what its role and position will be within this newly integrated East Asia.

Sea Routes to Asia

In France and other European countries, an obvious priority is securing access to the booming East Asia region—the case of Marseilles is only one example of the growing importance of this issue. In this context, the Belt and Road initiative being carried forward by Xi is of chief interest. China is funding major projects to expand port facilities and improve infrastructure along both the land- and sea-based Silk Roads stretching across Asia to Europe. Despite the anticipated benefits of this massive investment, the hegemonic nature of Chinese expansion has attracted suspicion both in the West and in regions directly affected by the program, where many people fear the return of something close to colonialism.

Without question, many welcome Chinese-funded infrastructure development aid, but there is also a danger that recipient nations will be drawn into the orbit of quasi-imperialistic Chinese control. Many experts are also concerned that if China were to turn inward and cut off investment funding, recipient countries would be left to stagnate under crushing debt. However, it is important to take such assessments with a grain of salt as views of Chinese investment are frequently influenced by personal attitudes about Chinese expansion in general and are not necessarily based on a rational analysis of the facts.

Setting aside the question of Chinese dominance, it is clear that as East Asia’s economic influence grows, transportation routes proposed under China’s One Belt, One Road offer vast potential as international shared resources. Greater use of sea routes and other waterways will also be essential from the perspective of climate change, and the European Union is encouraging a “modal shift” of this kind for precisely this reason. In this respect, the renewal of the port facilities in Marseilles is perhaps a pioneering glimpse of the world to come. Closer to home, Japan’s position on the shortest sea route between China and the United States has led to an increase in the volume of traffic passing through its ports in recent years.

Establishing International Norms in the Seas of East Asia

For many years now, security risks have continued to escalate alongside economic growth in East Asia. Along with much-needed infrastructure development, the region urgently requires nations to establish more widely respected international norms. Stand-offs and compromises are likely to occur between China and neighboring countries as the region works to resolve these issues like North Korea, territorial disputes, and maritime hegemony. For smaller countries in Asia, France, and China itself, the true long-term benefits will come not from a system dominated by raw power, but from the establishment of fair and equal relations, the use of agreed rules to resolve disputes, and free access to new infrastructure. Shared prosperity and relationships of trust and collaboration should be the aim.

Today, with the United States espousing an “America first” doctrine and engaging in a trade war with China, the liberal international order faces a grave crisis.

In East Asia, Japan remains one of the few countries that can be said to share values with the West. With the United States under Donald Trump causing friction in the international community, now is the time for the democratic countries of Western Europe and East Asia to cooperate closely to protect international norms and freedoms.

French involvement will be particularly important in this regard. For better or worse, France retains a footing in the Pacific and wishes to play a leading role in maintaining global law. It should certainly be looking to do everything it can to help create new norms and standards for a more stable international order. Japan is ideally positioned to act as a vital partner in this effort.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 16, 2018. Banner photo: Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito is received by President Macron at the Palace of Versailles on September 12, 2018, during his visit to France to commemorate mark 160 years of friendship between the two nations. © Jiji.)

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