France and Japan Conduct Military Drills Amid China Tensions – but Paris Wary of NATO Role

The French and Japanese air forces have conducted aerial exercises in Japan, the first of their kind between the two allies. But even as Paris seeks to build its military alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, France has blocked proposals to open a NATO liaison office in Tokyo.

The four-day joint drills are part of a larger French exercise, codenamed Pegase 2023, taking place across the Indo-Pacific in the coming weeks, including in French island territories.

“It’s natural that France, a resident nation of the Indo-Pacific, is particularly concerned by the geopolitical tensions felt in the region as a result of competition between the great powers,” General Stephane Mille, chief of staff of the French Air and Space Force, told reporters at a July 28 news conference in Japan’s Saitama prefecture.

China tensions

Those tensions are also felt by NATO, which describes China as a challenge to the Western alliance’s “interests, security and values.” China rejects that characterization. The NATO Strategic Concept cites Beijing’s buildup of its armed forces, its “malicious hybrid and cyber operations,” and its efforts to subvert the rules-based international order among its reasons for concern.

Closer cooperation in the Indo-Pacific is in NATO’s interest, says Michito Tsuruoka, a security analyst at Keio University and a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra, Australia.

“NATO’s interest is very much affected by what takes place in the Indo-Pacific region. So that means that NATO has to be more engaged for its own interest,” Tsuruoka told VOA in an interview on Saturday.

“Another increasingly important pillar in NATO-Japan cooperation is about standardization and interoperability – so standardization of equipment and interoperability between the forces,” Tsuruoka said.

NATO office

At its July annual summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, NATO put forward the opening of a liaison office in Tokyo. However, French President Emmanuel Macron blocked the move.

“It’s pretty clear that President Macron wants to avert any sort of escalation, or dynamic that could lead to escalation, with China,” said Fabrice Pothier, a former NATO head of policy planning and now the CEO of the consultancy group Rasmussen Global, in an interview with VOA on Tuesday. “And he probably considers putting the NATO flag somewhere in the Indo-Pacific – even though it’s a very symbolic flag – as a bit too provocative.”

China warned the opening of a NATO office in Tokyo would “destabilize” the region. There is no such danger, says analyst Tsuruoka.

“Because what we are talking about, what NATO is talking about, is just a one-person office. So, it will never change the balance of power in the region,” Tsuruoka told VOA. “It’s just a sort of technical innovation in terms of the way in which NATO deals with the Indo-Pacific region. It’s not about NATO troops coming to Asia, or NATO now having responsibility to deter China. That’s not the case.”

Bilateral relations

For now, Paris is pushing bilateral relations with Indo-Pacific allies, Pothier said.

“France is always keen on underlining that NATO is a Euro-Atlantic organization with somehow clear geographic boundaries and responsibilities. And that going beyond that is basically going beyond its core mandate.”

The idea of a NATO office in Tokyo could be revived, he added.

“It could take some compromise and some time. But I think there could also be some alternative. You could consider the Japanese in a way offering to create and host a center of excellence with some other NATO countries,” Pothier said.

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