Citing concerns that it will place relations between Europe and China in jeopardy, France has rejected a proposal that would have allowed NATO to open its first-ever liaison office in Tokyo. French officials were cited airing the view in early June 2023 that NATO's focus away from the Atlantic region and presence in the East Asian region will distract it from its prime region of focus. Besides, France is arguing that the step goes against the provisions of the military alliance.
NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg previously hinted that a NATO liaison office in Japan would help the military alliance in countering the rising security threats emanating from China. This was countered by French President Emmanuel Macron when he said that "… pushing NATO to enlarge the spectrum and geography, will be a big mistake," thereby providing a trigger for the above debate. All along, Japan has adopted a cautious line on the issue. It declined to comment on Macron's latest remarks, saying "deliberations at various levels were still underway … at this point."
Predictably, Beijing has criticized NATO for formulating plans, which according to China could "destabilize" the region. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin stated that opening a NATO office in Japan will amount to "interfering in regional affairs and inciting bloc confrontation … Asia lies beyond the geographical scope of the North Atlantic."
Why Dissent Now?
The argument put forth by France that NATO's proposal to open an office in Tokyo does not seem tenable. The argument that the organization's treaty limits the area it covers is highly debatable. NATO, over the last few years, in its own words, has expressed concerns about China's rising aggression in the Indo-Pacific region.
In April 2023, NATO released an official statement titled "Relations with Partners in the Indo-Pacific Region." In it, NATO advocated strengthening relations with its Indo-Pacific partners — Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. The statement put forth that it is increasingly important to address cross-cutting security issues, which constitute an important aspect of NATO's 2030 agenda.
Besides, the NATO Foreign Ministers' meeting with partners from the Indo-Pacific has discussed the shift in the global balance of power and the rise of China. All along, France was very much part of all these discussions. But it did not register its dissent or disagreement on any of the above-cited aspects of geography or China when such statements were released.
Furthering China's Objectives in Europe
NATO's regular meetings with partners in the Indo-Pacific only go to acknowledge the increasing cross-pollination of like-minded security agendas and geographical spaces. The 21st century's global security scene can no longer treat Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific as autonomous and isolated regions from each other.
Macron has been riding on a seemingly conciliatory appeasement plank vis-à-vis China of late. There have been multiple recent developments under the Macron administration in Paris that have displayed extending a peculiar kind of olive branch to Beijing. These have served the latter's economic and politico-security objectives in Europe. For instance, France sent out an implicit message that it would no longer operate under the security umbrella of the United States and would seek strategic autonomy. In a visit to China earlier this year, Macron went to the extent of suggesting that "Europe must not become a vassal" in reference to the US.
Further, in February 2022, France joined Beijing in building seven infrastructure projects around the world. France thereby became the first such country to establish a joint intergovernmental infrastructure cooperation mechanism with China. The combined value of these projects was estimated to be over $1.7 billion USD. As per a statement from China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the seven projects are likely to be situated in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe. With Paris and Beijing jointly financing these schemes, the NDRC acknowledged that France is the first country to establish this kind of intergovernmental exchange with China.
France Failing to Set the Right Example
China's compliance with international law has been a contentious issue. Namely, Beijing has not treated legality as carrying normative value. Rather, it adopts a functionalist approach that impacts its approach to law. This is a time when the debate surrounding the rules-based global order, and the case for strengthening the international rule of law needs to be supported by liberal democracies. And France's joining hands with Communist China, given the latter's dismal track record in this field, does not augur and echo well in the free world. It only goes further in exposing the fissures in the G7 grouping.
While unveiling France's views on climate and the rule of law during its European Union (EU) Presidency, Macron outlined his priorities. Most importantly, he articulated that "rule of law is non-negotiable." However, his policy actions and erroneous politico-strategic messaging on the ground, narrate a completely different — and disappointing — story. The Macron administration is certainly not emitting encouraging signals. This is especially at a time when the strategic measure of the international community revolves around the enhancement of the international rule of law, multilateralism, and global governance capabilities.
France is a G7 representative liberal democracy and among the earliest republics of the modern world with democratic traditions and values. But it is not setting the right example by engaging with China and underscoring the cracks in the armor when it comes to confronting Beijing and its collective politico-military-strategic offensive exhibited across Asia and Europe.
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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.