Japan and Europe: A Marriage of Convenience Matures


There is only one conclusion to be drawn from Japan’s ever more intimate security relationship with Europe: the world is getting smaller. A region once deemed irretrievably distant from Japan is an increasingly integral part of Tokyo’s strategic calculations. This change reflects the proliferation of capabilities that allow ever more far-flung engagement among like-minded nations. More importantly, credit the convergence of views among Japan and its European partners about the chief security threat of the 21st century—the rise of China and its desire to revise the international order—and concomitant doubts about the capacity of the United States to manage that challenge on its own. 

Security cooperation with Europe has expanded in tandem with Japan’s efforts to raise its security profile more generally, a process that began in earnest with the end of the Cold War and accelerated after the terror attacks of 2001. Abe Shinzo played a key role in this evolution. He identified NATO as a key partner during his first term as prime minister and the security policy reforms passed during his historical second term in office provided the framework for enhanced cooperation with Europe. This article explores that trajectory, with particular attention to Tokyo’s cooperation with NATO. It focuses on developments of the Abe years and tracks the convergence in security policy between Japan and Europe, examining the rationale behind Japanese thinking and limits on future cooperation.

In sum, Japanese diplomacy aimed to engage NATO, the European Union, and the major European powers in the Indo-Pacific over the ten years from 2012 to 2022. Those efforts were backed by the United States, made possible by China’s alienation of Europe, and accelerated by Russia’s launch of a war in Ukraine. Yet, critical to that transformation was Japan’s own reconceptualization of its security environment and how to respond.

The World Gets Smaller

Through much of the Cold War, Japan had little interest in security relations with Europe. While the Soviet Union posed a global threat, the European and Asian theaters were not only distant but faced different sorts of challenges. NATO saw no need to engage with external partners to achieve its primary mission, and Japan viewed Europe as something of a competitor since both relied on the United States for security guarantees. There were worries that its ally might not have the forces to fight on two fronts, and Washington would prioritize Europe in a global conflict.

There was also concern that European attempts to mitigate its Soviet threat could come at Japan’s expense. This fear crystallized in the early 1980s during the dispute over Moscow’s deployment of SS-20 intermediate range nuclear missiles. As NATO attempted to counter that threat and the outline of an arms control deal emerged, Japan worried that the agreement would allow the Soviets to move the missiles to the Asian theater rather than destroy them. This prompted Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro to press the 1983 G7 meeting to declare that “the security of our countries is indivisible and must be approached on a global basis.”1 Nakasone explained after the summit, “We don’t want the Soviet Union to use Asia as a garbage dump for any SS-20s it may withdraw from Europe.”2 It was also reported that Tokyo sought to establish an informal consultative mechanism with NATO around that time, but that initiative was blocked by France, which argued that the group should remain focused on Europe.3

The prospect of refocusing Russian capabilities emerged again a little over a decade later, as NATO attempted to build a new relationship with Russia. Nishihara Masashi explained that “Tokyo feared that with the establishment of NATO’s Partnership of Peace (PfP) and better relations between Russia and NATO, Russia might shift its military personnel and arms to its Far East.”4

Those tensions did not preclude all contacts. Japan is NATO’s oldest out-of-theater partner, a relationship launched with a visit by Japan’s defense minister to Brussels in 1979, which was followed up in 1981 and again in 1984. Japan became increasingly aware of Europe’s growing role in global political and security affairs, an evolution that matched Japan’s own emergence as an economic power. Tokyo needed to ensure that it too had a productive relationship with this rising power. As Nishihara explained, “security specialists and relevant government officials in Japan had a high regard for NATO as a powerful alliance whose members were experienced in diplomacy and had a military strategy that stood firm in the face of the military threat posed by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.”5

The end of the Cold War prodded the two forward. A NATO secretary general visited Tokyo in 1991, and also that year the chairman of the Joint Staff Council of the Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) made his first trip to Brussels. The following year, the US provided its stamp of approval—and a nudge—to a Japan-Europe security relationship with the 1992 Tokyo Declaration of the U.S.-Japan Global Partnership made by President George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi, which endorsed “political dialogue between Japan and NATO.”6

The bruising experience of the first Persian Gulf War prompted soul-searching in Tokyo and resulted in legislation to permit participation in UN peacekeeping operations. It also prodded Tokyo to move forward with relations with NATO. Formal talks were launched in 1993. Yet even as Japan worked with NATO as part of international efforts to help stabilize the Balkans, the gap between the two sides’ perspectives proved substantial, reducing relations to “largely … diplomatic niceties,” in the judgment of Tsuruoka Michito.7

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 provided another opportunity to advance the relationship. The Global War on Terror was a reminder that security threats were indivisible and required nations to reach out to all possible partners. As Tsuruoka explained, “NATO’s and Japan’s activities now overlapped more as a result and this provided firmer ground on which cooperation could be built.”8 Japan sent ships to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to provide support for Operation Enduring Freedom. Tokyo dispatched Self-Defense Forces to southern Iraq for humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts; limited by the restrictive rules of engagement, they were protected by British and Dutch forces.

In the early 2000s, Japanese officials were again pointing out the indivisibility of security concerns as Europe debated lifting the embargo on arms exports to China. That move, they reminded their European counterparts, would give an adversary the means to threaten Japan.

Efforts to engage NATO accelerated in the mid 2000s. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer visited Japan in April 2005. A little over a year later, in May 2006, Aso Taro became the first Japanese foreign minister to attend a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, where he spoke of Tokyo’s desire to “work more closely with NATO” and to “establish regular contact with the North Atlantic Council.” He called Japan and NATO “like-minded peers” that “value the virtue of democracy, human rights, and rule of law” and said that they share a common intention “to contribute actively toward [the] peace and stability of the international community.”9 Within the year, Japanese officers attended a peace support operations seminar, observed an exercise, and were students at the NATO Defense College in Rome.   

The following year, Abe Shinzo became the first Japanese prime minister to visit NATO headquarters, where, he echoed many of Aso’s themes. Significantly, he urged the two to “move on to a new phase of cooperation,” endorsing more-practical cooperation in areas, such as peace building, reconstruction, and disaster relief.10 As in 1992, the US was pushing Japan to expand cooperation: The 2007 Japan-US Security Consultative Committee meeting, the “2+2 meeting” of defense and foreign affairs ministers, called the broader development of Japan-NATO cooperation a common strategic objective of the United States and Japan.11

For Tokyo, NATO was an important venue at which Japan could raise political awareness of the threats that it faced and influence the behavior of European countries as they engaged countries like China and North Korea, which it considered dangerous. Thus, in remarks at Humboldt University in Germany in 2009, then Prime Minister Aso would warn that “the security environment in the Northeast Asia surrounding Japan is, we may well say, increasing in its severity” but added that Japan and Europe are “aiming for the same ultimate goals” and concluded that “partnership between Japan and Europe is inevitable.”12 Coordination was already occurring: In addition to the Iraq deployments, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces and European navies were cooperating in antipiracy efforts off the coast of Somalia. All such work was supported by the signing in 2010 of an Agreement between Japan and NATO on the Security of Information and Material.

The Partnership Accelerates

Assessing the relationship in 2011, Tsuruoka concluded that it was “undeniable that Japan-Europe security cooperation and dialogue had yet to be established as one of the pillars of Japan’s foreign and security policy” with the relationship being mostly “a history of trade disputes.”13 Prime Minister Abe aimed to fix that, launching the “new phase of cooperation” that he had promised during his first term in the Kantei, a pledge left unfulfilled by his premature departure from office. That materialized in a joint political declaration, the first such document between Japan and NATO, that was signed April 15, 2013.14 It repeated the claim that security was indivisible: “Notwithstanding geographic distance between Japan and the member nations of NATO, we believe that in a more globalized and interlinked world, each of these two regions is affected by, and can affect, political and security developments beyond its borders.” It stated that the foundations of the relationship are shared values—individual liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law—and common security challenges, at that time the defeat of terrorism and the support for the multilateral coalition in Afghanistan. Emerging challenges identified in the document included cyber-defense, disaster relief, counterterrorism, disarmament, in particular for small arms and light weapons, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, and maritime security. The document also referenced the information exchange for counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia.

Abe visited NATO headquarters a year later and, in remarks to the North Atlantic Council, reiterated that the “[n]ew security policies of Japan and NATO’s ‘comprehensive approach’ are highly compatible and NATO is a natural partner for implementing the ‘proactive’ contribution to peace.”15 For Japan, which takes a panoramic perspective of the world map, NATO is a “reliable natural partner.” That convergence was formalized during that visit with the signing of an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program (IPCP). It reiterated much of the language and logic of the Joint Declaration, noting “shared strategic interests in promoting global peace, stability and prosperity, through pursuing a rules-based international order that promotes the peaceful settlement of disputes” and the need to cooperate in the face of global and emerging security challenges. The IPCP agreement states that Japan and NATO would strengthen high-level dialogue and promote defense exchanges, including Japan’s participation in NATO’s Partnership Cooperation Menu activities and in NATO exercises. Importantly, it laid out a commitment to promote practical cooperation in nine areas, including cyber, arms-control and nonproliferation, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security, and counterterrorism.

Japan and NATO held their first joint naval exercise in September 2014; a second exercise followed in November 2014 and there were two others in February and October 2015. Working with NATO on maritime security aligns well with Japan’s interests in international maritime law, protection of international shipping lanes and freedom of navigation.16

High-level political visits continued. Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio visited NATO headquarters in January 2015, and Abe returned to Brussels in 2017. Stoltenberg reciprocated Abe’s trip with one of his own later that same year, speaking of the two as “natural partners,” and discussed NATO’s interests in the stability and security of the Asia-Pacific region.

The following year, Japan and NATO revised their IPCP agreement. The update reflected the rise of China and included a new emphasis on maintaining and strengthening “a free and open international order based on the rule of law” and on information sharing. In addition, the new version discussed “participation in each other’s exercises”: previously it had only mentioned Japan’s participation in NATO exercises. Also, the nine areas of practical cooperation were cut to seven: counterterrorism and comprehensive approaches to conflict management were eliminated.17

2018 was a busy year for the relationship. Japan announced that it would join the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia, and began to contribute to projects under the NATO Science for Peace and Security Partnership, a consortium for collaboration on security-related research and development. (Since then, it has cooperated on activities in counterterrorism and the detection and clearance of mines and unexploded ordnance.) In addition, Japanese scientists are researching a semiconductor-based sensing device that will facilitate the identification of explosive chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) materials or special nuclear material at ports and border crossings.)18 On July 1, Tokyo established an official mission to NATO, within its embassy in Belgium. In August 2018, a Maritime SDF training squadron already in Europe joined basic exercises in the Baltic Sea and off the coast of Spain, sailing alongside NATO Standing Maritime Groups. Tokyo also appointed a liaison officer to the NATO Allied Maritime Command in London, which mirrored the designation of a Japanese liaison officer to NATO Headquarters. Japan also dispatched a SDF officer to the office of the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security. 

By 2019, one analyst concluded that the Japan-NATO relationship had “flowered,” as a result of “a solidifying of common values, a deepening understanding by each party of the mutual relevance of revisionist powers in their respective regions, and a greater concurrence between Japan and NATO’s strategic orientations,” a sharp contrast with Tsuruoka’s dour assessment at the beginning of the decade.19 Another analysis credited both sides for this convergence:  NATO’s projection of narratives of natural partnership, “strategic parallelism,” and cooperative security to Japan was successful because “Japan was ready and waiting to embrace [these narratives] for its own reasons, and indeed had already articulated its own versions of them.”20 The partnership continues to deepen. IPCP was renewed in June 2020.

Individual Countries

In addition to working with NATO, Japan has pursued cooperation with individual European countries. It has signed acquisition and cross-servicing agreements (ACSAs)—the legal arrangements that allow the exchange of the most common types of military support, such as food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and other forms of equipment—and information security agreements, as well as joined military exercises and operations with European militaries in the Indo-Pacific region.21

Japan has long had close relations with Britain, a major power whose strategic setting and outlook approximate that of Tokyo.22 A Memorandum on Defense Cooperation was signed in June 2012, which was followed by an Agreement concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology in July 2013 and a Japan-U.K. Information Security Agreement, which went into force in January 2014. The two governments agreed to launch a bilateral “2+2” Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting and begin negotiations on the ACSA; that agreement was concluded in January 2017 and went into force that August. They issued the Japan-UK Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in August 2017, which called on the two countries to develop an action plan for bilateral security cooperation. Regular high-level consultations and service to service exchanges have continued.

In January 2021, a Maritime Security Arrangement promoted security cooperation between the two navies. In April 2021, the British government announced that it would send its Carrier Strike Group to the region, a deployment that lasted from July to October and included stops in Japan. In September, the two sides announced that they would begin negotiations on a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) that would reciprocally improve policy, legal, and administrative procedures for joint operations, exercises, and activities between the armed forces of both countries. In 2022, British officials underscored their government’s continuing commitment to the Indo-Pacific, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss rejecting “the false choice between Euro-Atlantic security and Indo-Pacific security” in favor of “a global NATO,” to help “democracies like Taiwan … defend themselves.” Japan and the UK agreed on the broad principles of the RAA during Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to London in May 2022.  Finally, the two governments continued to pursue joint weapons development. In August they were reportedly planning to merge plans for their next-generation fighter and jointly develop a fuselage for common use.23 An optimistic analysis in 2018 labeled the relationship a “quasi alliance.” 24 A more judicious assessment concluded in 2020 that “the two countries have come a long way in a fairly short period of time and hold the promise of continued future growth.”25

France also figures in Japanese security calculations. It is the only EU member state with a constant military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, and it has had a sufficiently intimate relationship with Japan to be deemed a “special partner” by the Ministry of Defense.  They launched their own “2+2” meeting in January 2014, which was followed six months later by the signing of a statement of intent to promote defense cooperation and exchanges. An agreement concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology entered into force in December 2016, and an ACSA was concluded in July 2018, going into effect the following year.

At their fifth “2+2” meeting in January 2019, the two countries decided to establish the Japan-France Comprehensive Maritime Dialogue to promote cooperation. That agreement bore fruit the following year when the Destroyer JS Hyuga and supply ship Hamana participated in a Japan-France-US exercise in December 2020 and again in February 2021. Japan has continued to dispatch vessels for multilateral naval exercises with French counterparts. That training paid off in November 2020, when Japan and France worked together to rescue an emergency patient on an Indian-flagged vessel in the northern Arabian Sea.

Germany is Japan’s third major European partner. The two governments share sensitivities about a higher profile in security affairs given their role in World War II and the resulting tensions engendered by their economic successes. In July 2017, an Agreement concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology went into effect. They agreed in principle to an information exchange pact in February 2019, negotiations concluded two years later, in March 2021. Only in April 2021 did they hold their first 2+2, as a video teleconference. From August 2021 to February 2022, Germany dispatched a frigate to the Indo-Pacific region—which also stopped in Japan—to show that it too intended to promote regional security.  In July 2022, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock met her Japanese counterpart Hayashi Yoshimasa, and they agreed to enhance joint response capabilities against the backdrop of China’s military buildup in the Indo-Pacific. For all the progress, an alliance specialist still highlighted “very real impediments that may limit progress and future growth” in the relationship.26

Japan is enhancing ties with other European countries. With Italy, Tokyo has been promoting institutional development for defense cooperation and exchanges, steps that include the entry into force of the Japan-Italy Information Security Agreement in June 2016, a memorandum on defense cooperation and exchanges in May 2017, and the Agreement concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology in April 2019. An MSDF vessel trained with a Spanish Navy training ship in regional waters in February 2021. A Japan-Netherlands defense ministerial meeting was held in December 2016; it yielded a memorandum on defense cooperation and exchanges. A Dutch navy frigate was part of the UK Carrier Strike Group that visited Japan. Japan has held meetings, conducted exchanges and signed defense-related memoranda with Finland and Denmark as well.

Working with the European Union

NATO is not the only instrument of European multilateral security cooperation. In the 1990s, the European Union began to expand its role in foreign, security and defense policy, first by articulating the Common Foreign and Security Policy in 1993, and later, in 1999, the European Security and Defense Policy, which addressed peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance within the CFSP framework. The ESDP was renamed the Common Security and Defense Policy when Europe adopted the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. Japan has been a partner almost since its inception: The Japan–EU Joint Action Plan adopted in December 2001 declared their “particular ambition” to strengthen political and security cooperation.27 Japan has provided aid and support for various CSDP initiatives, and both parties declared in 2014 a desire to institutionalize that collaboration.28 In 2005, they launched a strategic dialogue on the security environment of East Asia, which remains more a consultation than a coordination mechanism.29 In 2009 Japan and the EU began joint counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, which have since included exercises, the exchange of information, and coordinated patrols to protect commercial vessels. One 2014 operation resulted in the capture of pirates.

The most important effort to institutionalize cooperation between Japan and the European Union is the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA). Japanese and EU leaders declared their intent in 2010 to formalize ties across a range of issues and concerns. Negotiations were launched in 2013, with the SPA serving as the political/security counterpart to the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement. The pact entered into force in 2019, and reflects “ambitious plans” for cooperation in international politics and security.30 One assessment concludes that “the EU–Japan SPA is intended to intensify the way the EU and Japan cooperate in out-of-area security challenges.”31 At a minimum, “the SPA extends and institutionalizes major bilateral engagements between the EU and Japan as ‘old friends.’”32 The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, published in September 2021, sets out its framework for broader engagement in the region; in the strategy, “the EU demonstrated clearly that it views Japan as a key partner.”33 

The Ukraine War

The new phase of cooperation with NATO continued after Abe stepped down as prime minister in September 2020. In December, Japan for the first time participated in a NATO Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (along with other nonmember partners) to discuss the shift in the global balance of power and the rise of China. At its Brussels summit in June 2021, NATO members agreed to increase dialogue and cooperation with partners in the Asia-Pacific region, an opportunity Tokyo seized upon. In March 2022, Kishida met Stoltenberg at NATO Headquarters as part of his travels for the G7 summit. Foreign Minister Hayashi attended the NATO summit the following week as a “partner” of the alliance, a first for Tokyo. Then in June, Kishida marked another first, attending the NATO Leader’s meeting. Finally, the chair of NATO’s Military Committee made an official visit to Japan in June 2022.

As the narrative indicates, Japan and Europe have been building closer ties for decades; the trajectory has not changed. But the invasion of Ukraine has had a profound impact on thinking throughout the continent and in Tokyo (and other capitals as well). Strategists now recognize that the global order that has been taken for granted since the end of the Cold War is imperiled. Revisionist powers seek to rewrite the status quo, and they are prepared to go beyond gray zone provocations and redraw borders by force. Not only must concerned governments do more to prepare their own defenses, they must also cooperate and coordinate more closely with like-minded nations to deter such challenges. Significantly, the assertion that security is “indivisible” has assumed new weight. As Hayashi told NATO during its April meeting, “it is not possible to speak about the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific region separately … unilateral changes to the status quo by force are unforgivable no matter the region and … it is vitally important to maintain and develop the international order based on universal values in all regions for global peace and stability.”34

Japan and Europe are working together more closely as a result. Tokyo has shed its traditional hesitancy and joined Western sanctions against Russian decision makers and financial institutions. In April, Japan had sanctioned 499 individuals and 38 organizations from Russia, and that list has since expanded as the war has dragged on. Tokyo has also provided hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance for Ukraine.

While the Japan-Europe security relationship took form more than 40 years ago, and has intensified since the invasion of Ukraine, Abe deserves credit for recognizing its potential—as he did in his remarks to NATO in 2007—during his first term in office and in his second term laying the groundwork that makes recent developments possible. His cabinet in July 2014 adopted the “Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People,”35 a policy framework that was followed by passage of the peace and security legislation in September 2015. The policy and the law lifted some restrictions on SDF deployment, facilitating engagement and cooperation with partners.36  As one European commentator summarized, “The long-held notion that Japan’s constitutional constraints inherently limit the development of the military side of Japan-NATO relations, preventing the deepening of the Japan-NATO relationship, is no longer accurate. The peace and security legislation provides a wide scope for potential operational cooperation in the military sphere, opening up the possibility for an entirely new dimension in Japan-NATO relations.”37

A decade ago, Tsuruoka Michito identified different ways in which Japan should “use” NATO. First, the organization serves as a “political partner.” By that he meant that Japan uses NATO to socialize its views on security issues, to make the case for Japanese thinking to a larger audience, to win allies and diplomatic support when those views are challenged. Ishii Masafumi, a former Japanese ambassador to NATO, explained that “The first thing we need is moral support. We need speeches and statements, so that whatever happens in Asia, we lead international opinion and that helps take the moral high ground.”38 The talk of “shared values” and repeated references to “natural partnership” are the bedrock of this cooperation.

The most fundamental concern for Japan was ensuring that other, like-minded governments did not see various theaters as either unlinked or, worse, competitive (meaning that security commitments to one region would come at the expense of commitments to another). Europe has been increasingly sensitive to the impact of developments in outlying regions as well, and Japan’s message was well received. This strategy has also succeeded in regard to China, although Beijing deserves the real credit for turning European thinking and policy in a more antagonistic direction. Tokyo has long argued that Beijing was a revisionist power that threatened the global order. Europe has become increasingly receptive to that message, the result of Chinese efforts to pressure EU member countries (and others) to be more amenable toward its policies and preferences and, when that failed, to engage in coercion. At its 2021 summit, NATO first explicitly identified China as a “systemic challenge,”39 a description that was repeated in the 2022 communique. The alliance’s new Strategic Concept declares that China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.”40 Ishii explained that “the Strategic Concept acknowledges that our security situation is intertwined and opens a chance for engagement.”

There is another way that engagement with NATO serves Japan’s political purposes. Japan’s quest for international credibility and support for its concerns requires it to demonstrate that it takes those threats seriously as well. Just as NATO member countries are obliged to increase their defense spending in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, so too must Japan boost its defense budget. Alarms about a revisionist China will not be believed if Japan is not prepared to spend money and make efforts necessary to defend itself. While this helps build credibility with European partners and demonstrates international solidarity, it also helps persuade domestic audiences, who have long been skeptical of politicians who call for increased spending.

Tsuruoka identified a second “use” of NATO for Japan: an operational partner. Japan’s SDF has worked with NATO forces to increase capabilities and make concrete security contributions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in the Arabian Sea and off the coast of Somalia. MSDF vessels have trained with NATO counterparts around the world. Moreover, explained Ishii, joint exercises with NATO or individual countries with the NATO flag, “create the possibility for less capable or less incentivized countries to be involved in a rotational way.”

While expectations of what NATO will do in an Indo-Pacific crisis remain limited—its primary concern will remain the European theater –it can still shape security in the region. China must be sensitive about going too far and triggering NATO’s Strategic Concept. Ambiguity about when NATO could be involved introduces uncertainty. “We know Germany won’t send ships in time of crisis, but it creates the theoretical possibility of some European engagement… It forces consideration of the worst case, and complicates Chinese calculations,” said Ishii. He added that Japan looks to NATO for support—helping with maritime domain awareness, antisubmarine warfare, and patrol sharing—in the western parts of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea: “they don’t have to come to the China Sea side.” 

NATO is useful for Japan in a third, perhaps counter-intuitive, way: working with the alliance is another venue where Tokyo can work with Washington. Since the US is a core partner of the trans-Atlantic alliance, Japan-NATO cooperation is, at some level, another form of Japan-US cooperation. Recall that several Japan-US bilateral declarations endorsed expanding Japan-NATO cooperation. This fostered a recognition in Japan that its relationship with NATO was essentially the European front of a global US-Japan alliance.41

Fourth, and perhaps confusing after that last point, working with the European Union allows Japan to promote and provide other forms of security cooperation. The EU has historically emphasized soft power and a type of crisis management that is very different from that practiced by the US. Its approach emphasizes civilian elements, an outlook that Japan too has traditionally favored. “There are instances where cooperation with the EU is more effective than cooperation with the US in realizing Japan’s specific policy objectives … precisely because the EU’s approaches and actions differ from the US.”42 This allows Tokyo to differentiate its work and approach from that of Washington when necessary. But, analysts insist, “cooperation with the EU and cooperation with the US are complementary, not contradictory.”43

Working with NATO (and the EU) has also helped educate Japan on multilateral security cooperation. There is no comparable mechanism in the Indo-Pacific. Working with NATO can help Japan learn how to facilitate multilateral cooperation. The particulars of that effort could include preparation for and holding of multinational exercises, training and operations, as well as ways to create interoperability among diverse militaries.

A final reason to work with NATO is the prospect of invigorating national defense industries. Modern weapons systems are complex and expensive. Economies of scale are essential to the survival of any such domestic industry and international collaboration is a vital part of modern defense production. Japan has acknowledged the weaknesses of its defense industries. In 2014, the government published a “Strategy on Defense Production and Technological Bases” and adopted a new policy that significantly loosened restrictions on arms exports. The following year, the Ministry of Defense established the Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA) to set priorities for military technology development. While the US is considered the priority partner, Japan is working with European countries as well to ensure that it stays at the cutting-edge of the defense industry.

One important factor facilitating closer ties between Japan and Europe has been the absence of powerful countervailing forces. While Japan and Europe (both the EU, NATO and their individual members) grapple with internal tensions when making China policy—balancing economic and security interests—there is little sense in Tokyo that closer security ties with Europe come at the expense of relations with China. Within this partnership, Tokyo has been pushing for the more hardline approach to Beijing. It has sought to move Europe closer to its position, and not vice versa.

Some in Tokyo had worried that intensified security cooperation with Europe would jeopardize engagement with Moscow. Japanese policy makers have had at least three goals when dealing with Russia: reclaiming the Northern Territories, land seized by Russia at the end of World War II; securing access to Russian natural resources, energy in particular, in the Russian Far East; and offering Moscow a strategic alternative to Beijing’s embrace. In some corners of Nagatacho, there have been fears that siding with Europe to counter Russian pressure would threaten those objectives. While Abe and some of his closest advisors clung to hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough that would secure the first and third goals—Japanese companies have invested in Russian resource development—an increasing number of analysts discerned a steady drift apart. James Brown noted that “Moscow’s policy toward Japan had hardened long before the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022… [E]conomic ties continued to underwhelm, political frictions were recurrent, and security tensions were increasing. Hopes of resolving the territorial dispute had evaporated well before Russia formally suspended treaty talks.”44 Just as important, as Satake Tomohiko observed, Japanese policymakers were learning “that no matter how much effort was devoted to improving relations with Russia, Putin had no intention of abandoning the ‘China card’ to challenge the existing Western-led international order. Japan’s ostensible realpolitik was overwhelmed by harsh strategic reality.”45

The invasion of Ukraine was the final crushing blow to those who held out hope. At first, there was some readiness, in the Foreign Ministry and parts of the LDP, to hold off on taking harsh measures against Moscow. They reportedly believed that Russian forces would secure a quick victory and Japan would have antagonized another neighboring government, lengthening a list that already included Beijing and Pyongyang.46 The ensuing stalemate, and pressure from Washington and European capitals, persuaded Tokyo that it could not prevaricate. As Brown concluded, “Japan’s uncharacteristically tough response to the invasion… [reflected a belief that] there was relatively little to be lost in terms of bilateral relations.”47

The only real challenge to closer security ties with Europe has been a fear that they might come at the expense of the Japan-US alliance. That concern is groundless. The US has at key moments—in 1992 and again in 2007—endorsed Japan-Europe cooperation, providing its imprimatur and pushing the two toward greater cooperation. Washington has overcome fears that its allies might pursue independent security policies that jeopardize its interests and has instead promoting greater collaboration among them to reduce its own costs and claim more flexibility. 

What Are the Limits?

The convergence of Japanese and European security policies is not happenstance. After the conclusion of the Cold War, Japan better recognized Europe’s value as a contributor to global security and as a potential partner. The alignment of interests and outlooks was consolidated and accelerated by Abe’s desire to raise his country’s international security profile and the recognition that Europe could buttress Tokyo’s concerns and policy preferences. A fear that US capacity for engagement might prove finite and that Europe and Tokyo were competing for Washington’s attention gave way to a shared concern about US commitment that reinforced Japan’s inclination to reach out to other security partners. Europe was driven by similar motivations. Worries about US policy reinforced Japan’s inclination to reach out to other security partners. Europe was driven by similar motivations. China did its part by adopting a more aggressive foreign policy, confirming the views of hawks in capitals around the world that Beijing was a revisionist force in international politics. The once shrill claim that security was “indivisible” has become more credible and more widely accepted.

Japan and Europe quickly picked the low-hanging fruit. The question is how much farther cooperation can go. The two can and will continue to make the same calls to respect the existing international order. They will continue to train and exercise together. Defense industrial cooperation will continue and likely grow. But distance will continue to intrude on their relationship. Europe’s first priority will remain the defense of Europe, just as Japan’s will be that of the western Pacific and the wider Indo-Pacific region. There will be some overlap in the Western Indian Ocean, but operational contingencies are unlikely to overlap. As poles of the global economy and centers of diplomatic power, Japan and Europe should be partners. But geography and the constraints on the exercise of their power will encourage both to be judicious about relying on the other. Their partnership should continue to mature, deepening and widening, but more slowly than before unless US leadership to forge trilateral ties or Sino-Russian threats that showcase common interests take center stage. The new focus on economic security also may clarify a division of labor reinforcing closer Japan-Europe cooperation.

When the Ukraine war occurred, success in laying the groundwork for Japan-Europe strategic coordination was demonstrated. Both the Biden administration’s strong leadership to strengthen three-way measures, such as on sanctions and assistance, and China’s worrisome support for a war of aggression have contributed to how Japan could build on the Abe legacy. These two external forces will be critical in determining Japan’s further advances with Europe.

1. Nishihara Masashi, “Can Japan be a global partner for NATO? December 2006,

2. Takashi Oka, “Japan Takes Firm Stand with West on Defense Issues at Summit,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 1983, at http://www.csmonitor.com/1983/0601/060153.html.

3. Jeffrey Hornung, “Allies Growing Closer: Japan-Europe Security Ties in the Age of Strategic Competition,” Rand, 2020, p. 77.

4. Nishihara, “Can Japan be a global partner for NATO?”

5. Ibid.

6. “The Tokyo Declaration on the U.S.-Japan Global Partnership,” January 2. 1992, https://tcc.export.gov/Trade_Agreements/All_Trade_Agreements/exp_005589.asp

7. Tsuruoka Michito “NATO and Japan as Multifaceted Partners,” NATO Defense College, Rome, Research Paper No. 91, April 2013, p. 2.

8. Ibid.

9. Foreign Minister Aso Taro, “Japan and NATO in a New Security Environment,” http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/fm/aso/speech0605.html

10. Shinzō Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, “Japan and NATO: Toward Further Collaboration,” North Atlantic Council, Brussels, January 12, 2007.

11. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee,” May 1, 2007, https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/n-america/us/security/scc/pdfs/joint0705.pdf.

12. “’A Japan-Europe Partnership to Surmount Global Challenges,’ Policy Speech by H.E. Mr. Taro Aso, Prime Minister of Japan,” Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet, Speeches and Statements, May 5, 2009, https://japan.kantei.go.jp/asospeech/2009/05/05speech_e.html

13. Tsuruoka Michito, “Japan-Europe Security Cooperation: How to ‘Use’ NATO and the EU,” NIDS Journal of Defense and Security, 2011, p. 28.

14. Joint Political Declaration between Japan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, January 13, 2013, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_99562.htm

15. Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program between Japan and NATO, May 6, 2014, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2014_05/20140507_140507-IPCP_Japan.pdf

16. Mirna Galic, “Navigating by Sun and Compass: Learning from the History of Japan-NATO Relations,” JIIA Policy Brief, 2019, p. 8, https://www2.jiia.or.jp/pdf/fellow_report/190527Policy_Brief-History_of_Japan_NATO_Relationship.pdf

17. Ibid., pp. 7-8.

18. NATO, “Relations with Japan,” https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_50336.htm

19. Galic, p. 9.

20. NATO, “Relations with Japan.”

21. Galic, p. 11.

22. The discussion of individuals countries draws on Japan Ministry of Defense, Defense of Japan White Paper 2021, pp. 366-374.

23. Shimoda Satoshi, “UK seeks ‘new Anglo-Japanese alliance’ on trade, security,” Nikkei Asia Review, August 22, 2022.

24. Philip Shetler-Jones, “Britain’s Quasi-Alliance with Japan,” in Luis Simón and Ulrich Speck, eds., Natural Partners? Europe, Japan and Security in the Indo-Pacific, Real Instituto Elcano, Elcano policy paper, November 2018, pp. 15–19.

25. Hornung, p. 38.

26. Ibid., p. 75.

27. “Shaping Our Common Future: An Action Plan for EU—Japan Cooperation,” European Union—Japan Summit, Brussels, December 8, 2001.

28. Axel Berkofsky, “The Strategic Partnership Agreement,” in Axel Berkofsky et al, eds, The EU-Japan Partnership in the Shadow of China: The Crisis of Liberalism (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019), p. 25.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., p. 17.

31. Wilhelm Vosse, “EU–Japan security partnership in practice: the counter-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia,” in Wilhelm Vosse and Paul Midford, eds, Japan’s new security partnerships, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), p. 231.

32. Emil Kirchner and Han Dorussen, “New Horizons in EU-Japan Security Cooperation,” Asia Journal Europe, 2021, Vol 19, p. 40.

33. European Council on Foreign Relations, “The EU and Japan: Strategic Partners in the Indo-Pacific,” April 4, 2022, https://ecfr.eu/madrid/article/the-eu-and-japan-strategic-partners-in-the-indo-pacific/

34. Foreign Ministry of Japan, “Extraordinary Press Conference by Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa,” April 7, 2022, https://www.mofa.go.jp/press/kaiken/kaiken24e_000120.html

35. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Cabinet Decision on Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People,” July 1, 2014, https://www.mofa.go.jp/fp/nsp/page23e_000273.html

36. Galic.

37. Ibid., p. 10

38. This and all other comments are from an author interview, July 21, 2022.

39. NATO, “Brussels Summit Communique,” June 14, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm

40. NATO, “NATO 2022 Strategic Concept,” June 29, 2022, p. 5.

41. Tsuruoka, “NATO and Japan as Multifaceted Partners,” p. 5.

42. Tsuruoka, “Japan-Europe Security Cooperation: How to ‘Use’ NATO and the EU,” pp. 41-2.

43. Ibid., p. 42.

44. James Brown, “Russia ‘turns to the East,’ yet away from Japan,” The Asan Forum, May 11, 2022,  https://theasanforum.org/russia-turns-to-the-east-yet-away-from-japan-2012-2022/

45. Tomohiko Satake, “How Japan’s Russia policy changed after Ukraine,” East Asia Forum, June 24, 2022, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2022/06/24/how-japans-russia-policy-changed-after-ukraine/

46. “Six months into the job, Kishida is rewriting Abe’s Russia playbook,” Asahi Shimbun, April 6, 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14589952

47. Brown, “Russia ‘turns to the East,’ yet away from Japan.”

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