France’s Opposition to Tokyo’s NATO Liaison Office: Deferring to China?


Following vigorous lobbying by the Japanese government, a proposal to open a North Atlantic Treaty Organization liaison office in Tokyo appeared to be on track until French President Emmanuel Macron expressed reservations about the plan. Is France deferring to China in doing so?

Plans to open Asia’s first liaison office of the North American Treaty Organization in Tokyo appeared to be on track. The office would serve as a hub for cooperation between NATO, Japan, and other countries in the region wanting to keep an eye on China and interested in deterring the Chinese government’s increasingly hegemonic behavior in the Indo-Pacific. However, French President Emmanuel Macron suddenly expressed opposition to the proposal, raising the prospect that the plan could be scuttled and throwing NATO’s unity over its China strategy in the lead-up to the organization’s July summit in doubt.

A Focal Point for Cooperation

It was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that prompted NATO to get serious about opening a liaison office in Tokyo. Four months after the invasion, NATO revised its “Strategic Concept” for the first time in 12 years at its June 2022 Madrid summit. This document defines the security challenges NATO faces and outlines what tasks it needs to undertake to address them.

The updated version describes Russia as the most significant and direct threat to the security of ally countries and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. It also singles out China as subverting the international order “in the space, cyber, and maritime domains,” and notes that the deepening of Russia and China’s strategic partnership “undercut the rules-based international order” and ran “counter to our values and interests.”

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio travelled to Madrid for the NATO summit, the first time a Japanese head of state has attended the gathering. While there, he strongly emphasized to the United States and European nations that the security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions is inseparable. He expressed concern that “unilateral changes to the status quo by force” were continuing in Asia, including around Taiwan. Punctuating his point, he appealed to NATO countries by announcing that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.”

While visiting Japan and South Korea earlier this year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed Kishida’s Madrid language, saying that Europe and Asia’s “security is closely interconnected.” During Stoltenberg’s trip, Japan and NATO agreed to deepen strategic cooperation in a wide range of areas, including information sharing, cyber security, maritime security, and countermeasures against disinformation. In its joint statement, NATO also welcomed Japan’s plans to regularly participate in the North Atlantic Council and NATO Chiefs of Defense meetings.

The NATO Secretariat and the Japanese government are also coordinating invites to the July 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, for Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. At the same time, NATO and Tokyo are working on an individually tailored partnership program that would elevate the current Japan-NATO cooperation framework to “reflect the challenges of a new era.” It is in the context of NATO’s partnerships with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand that a proposal to establish a Tokyo liaison office by the end of 2024 gained greater prominence.

Macron’s Abrupt Opposition

The new office seemed like a done deal until Macron’s sudden objection. According to the Financial Times, Macron expressed his opposition to the Tokyo liaison office at a meeting held in late May, where he said that enlarging NATO’s spectrum beyond the North Atlantic would constitute “a big mistake.”

Macron has stressed that France values its relationship with China, including showing eagerness to expand economic ties and expressing hope that China will use its influence to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine. He has not shied away from conveying his views, even at risk of rankling allies like the United States. During a visit to China in early April, for instance, he angered Washington and caused a stir among other G7 and NATO countries by declaring on the issue of Taiwan that “the worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and adapt to the American rhythm.”

At about the same time as the FT report, Beijing reiterated its opposition to the opening of the Tokyo NATO liaison office, saying that “Asia lies beyond the geographical scope of the North Atlantic and has no need for a replica of NATO”, adding that Japan should “refrain from doing anything that may undermine mutual trust between regional countries and peace and stability in the region.” The words and actions of Macron and those of the Chinese foreign ministry have the appearance of being timed to coincide, suggesting that France is showing significant deference toward China.

NATO Unity in Question

NATO has opened liaison offices for security cooperation in more than 10 non-member countries so far, including Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. However, opening of an office in Tokyo would require unanimous support from the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political decision-making body, a fact that French officials have not failed to point out.

At the same time, NATO is eager to counter the deepening global strategic partnership between Russia and China. To this end, the organization is keen to position friendly nations like Japan, South Korea, and Australia as regional Indo-Pacific “partners” to build a wide-ranging network for security cooperation. The Tokyo liaison office would serve as the foundation for the development of activities with new regional partners and would represent a significant achievement of NATO’s revised strategic concept.

However, compared to the United States, which is concerned about a potential cross-strait conflict, many European NATO countries are trying to distance themselves from any commitment in the event of a Taiwan contingency. The attitudes of other European countries in addition to France are likely to have a notable influence on the resolution of the liaison office issue.

The opening of a Tokyo office is an idea that has been in the works since 2007 when then Prime Minister Abe Shinzō first visited NATO headquarters in Brussels. In 2018, Japan established a formal mission to NATO headquarters, making a Tokyo liaison office a realistic possibility.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has remained silent publicly about the opening of the Tokyo liaison office, but is said to have backed the move behind closed doors. The Japanese government is carefully monitoring the situation. How the behind-the-scenes diplomacy unfolds between Japan and member nations in the lead-up to the NATO summit in July will be of great importance.

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo: Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa (left) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg attend a press conference during a gathering of NATO foreign ministers on April 4, 2023. © AFP/Jiji News.)

China France Kishida Fumio NATO