Cover: Allies Growing Closer

Allies Growing Closer

Japan–Europe Security Ties in the Age of Strategic Competition

Published Dec 21, 2020

by Jeffrey W. Hornung


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Research Questions

  1. What types of cooperative activities is Japan pursuing with the UK, France, Germany, and NATO in the security domain amid a return of strategic competition?
  2. What are the motivations behind these developments and their implications for these entities' relationships with the United States?
  3. How do the security strategies of Japan and its European counterparts overlap with and diverge from one another, and how do they benefit the United States?

Some of the United States' most powerful and trustworthy allies are its European partners and Japan. This report presents the results of a RAND Corporation study examining how Japan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and three European states — the United Kingdom (UK), France, and Germany — are increasingly cooperating in the security domain in this age of growing strategic competition.

Seeking to build on extensive work done by European and Japanese scholars to assess and understand developments in these relationships, the author utilized official documents and publications and an extensive program of field research in Tokyo, London, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin that included 56 interviews with officials, armed forces personnel, and subject-matter experts.

The analysis focused on (1) defense and strategic dialogues, (2) defense exchanges, defense cooperation, and defense-related industrial cooperation, and (3) training and exercises. The results show that Japan–UK security ties are the most robust but lack an overarching strategy that pulls the separate lines of effort together into a coherent whole. Japan–France ties are significant and growing, and they fit well within the two countries' regional strategies, but the track record is less robust than that of Japan–UK ties. Japan's bilateral ties with Germany lack depth, but there is a growing convergence around strategic interests. Finally, Japan's ties with NATO lack regular dialogues and exchanges, but they have a growing record of cooperation in exercises and noncombat operations.

These discrete lines of effort matter, and closing recommendations offer ways they can further be fostered.

Key Findings

Japan's partnerships with the UK, France, Germany, and NATO share some similarities

  • All recognize the importance of protecting the international order.
  • All recognize China as a security challenge.
  • All recognize the importance of the Indo-Pacific.
  • All acknowledge the primacy of the United States.

Each of these partnerships also has some important differences from the others

  • Each bilateral dyad between Japan and a European counterpart has its own lines of effort, not coordinated with those of other bilateral dyads.
  • Despite sharing views of China as a security challenge, European actors prefer to not directly criticize China as openly as Japan sometimes does.
  • The European partners' approach to Russia differs from Japan's. Whereas the UK, France, Germany, and NATO all view Russia as a serious violator of international laws and norms and as their greatest threat that demands attention, Japan does not appear to see the menacing "European Russia" but seeks instead to engage Russia in the hopes of securing a peace treaty and return of disputed islands.

The partnerships have implications for the United States

  • The partnerships support U.S. leadership.
  • The partnerships support international-order burden-sharing.
  • The partnerships support flexible, smaller groupings of partners.
  • The partnerships make all U.S. allies more effective.
  • The partnerships strengthen Japan without using U.S. resources.
  • The partnerships connect the European and Indo-Pacific regions.


  • Be patient. Although practical areas of cooperation are occurring and growing, bilateral security ties take time to develop and build on small, iterative efforts.
  • Support signaling and symbolism. Even when operational value is not apparent, having allies work together in contested spaces can increase costs on nonallied states. A united front in maintaining the international order sends a strong message.
  • Temper expectations. Although security ties have gotten closer, several obstacles need to be overcome for further growth. These include the finite nature of human and financial resources, Japan's heavy reliance on U.S. defense equipment, bandwidth and prioritization of resources in the UK in the face of Brexit, Europe's continued focus on Russia, and continuing legal restraints in Japan on what it can do militarily.
  • Encourage bilateral ties to grow in specific areas. These include nontraditional security cooperation, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises, and fighting piracy. It also includes developing coordinated strategies for more-traditional security issues, such as North Korea and maritime security. Finally, putting existing exercises on regular schedules can provide continuity.
  • Focus on future threats, particularly in the cyber and space domains.
  • Coordinate subregional strategies so that existing bilateral efforts are more coherent and not so siloed.

This research was sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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