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Italy latest in Europe to step up military ties with Japan

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
June 29, 2024

Rome is deploying its flagship aircraft carrier to the Indo-Pacific region for joint exercises with the Japanese navy. Italy is also working together with Japan and the UK on a new-generation fighter jet.

Fumio Kishida and Giorgia Meloni shake hands at the G7 summit in Italy
Closer ties appear to have been cemented by the G7 meeting between Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Japanese leader Fumio KishidaImage: Luca Bruno/AP/picture alliance

The Italian aircraft carrier Cavour is set to make a port call in Japan in August and take part in military exercises with units of Japan's Self-Defense Forces, with Rome becoming the latest European nation to step up its political and defense ties with Tokyo.

The deployment of the 27,100-ton flagship of the Italian Navy was announced this week in Rome by Defense Minister Guido Crosetto.

He also confirmed that the carrier's complement of up to 10 advanced F-35B stealth fighters will take place in the drills "to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific," Kyodo News reported.

Detachments of the German, French and Spanish air forces are similarly scheduled to take part in multinational maneuvers in Japan in July.

Convergence of interests

The closer ties between Rome and Tokyo appear to have been cemented by the meeting of leaders of the G7 states in Puglia, southern Italy, hosted by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in mid-June.

Meloni is reported to have held a one-on-one meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of the summit, during which the Japanese leader emphasized the need for multinational cooperation to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

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"Italy and Japan seemed to have, even in the recent past, quite different diplomatic horizons and strategic interests, with Italy more focused on the Middle East and North Africa," said Marco Zappa, an assistant professor of Japanese studies at the Ca' Foscari University of Venice.

But now we are seeing this convergence as relations between Italy and China have turned cold over the past couple of years, he told DW.

Italy is the only major Western economy to sign up to Beijing's flagship "Belt and Road Initiative." But Meloni's government announced in December that it was pulling out of the project, which is likely to have angered China.

Zappa said it is "no surprise" that in the months since that decision, Italy has shown a far closer alignment to the US and its other NATO allies.

Japan, similarly, has also been working more closely with NATO.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has spurred Tokyo to make greater overtures to European nations, as well as stretch the self-imposed regulations on what it can provide to another nation at war.

That "symbolic stance is going to be normalized with these port visits and joint training," said Zappa.

Avoiding antagonizing China

Yet he does not anticipate that Rome will risk antagonizing China during the Cavour's deployment to the region. The ship will steer clear of the disputed territories in the South China Sea, many of which Beijing has seized and since fortified.

It's also very unlikely that the aircraft carrier would make what would be a highly provocative passage through the Taiwan Strait.

Minilateral relations between China and Indo-Pacific nations

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, said the dispatch of a single Italian warship is largely symbolic, but added that Kishida will be happy with the deeper and broader security ties he is building for Japan.

"Kishida has been very engaged with Europe and NATO and is looking to make the case that Japan is doing all that it can to support Ukraine so that European nations will reciprocally demonstrate their support in the event of a Taiwan crisis down the line," he told DW.

A key element of the knitting together of defense and security for Japan is the joint development of weapons systems, instead of the previous approach of largely purchasing US equipment.

Japan, Italy and the UK are collaborating on the development of a next-generation fighter jet, a partnership that Defense Minister Minoru Kihara said after the agreement was signed on December 14 "brings together the best technologies from Japan, the United Kingdom and Italy to strengthen deterrence in the face of the most challenging and complex security environment since World War II."

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'Massive turning point' in weapons procurement

Zappa described the project as a "massive turning point in Japan's procurement history" and, equally, a significant opportunity for Italy's defense sector to expand and develop into new markets.

Domestically, he added, the developing relationship with Japan has caused no concern.

"There is no political or public discourse on the relationship with Japan, but the image among Italians is that Japan is beautiful and a good global ally," he said.

For Japan, the expert noted, improving defense ties with European nations like Italy could help reduce its reliance on the United States.

"I believe that Japan is keen to prepare for a possible second [Donald] Trump presidency. That could bring another four years of uncertainty and so Tokyo is hedging against that with these new partnerships."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea