Will There Be a “Free and Open Baltic Sea”? Japan and Northeastern Europe in a Strategic Tandem

Eurasia is undergoing a geopolitical Zeitenwende. The Russia–Ukraine war has transformed the continent’s security perspective, bringing its opposite ends together into a strategic tandem. At the same time as longstanding neutral countries Finland and Sweden have decided to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the transatlantic alliance has extended its reach to the Indo-Pacific, embracing Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand as its suitable partners.

Projecting an “Atlantic-Pacific” dynamism, NATO’s cross-regional development has been welcomed by these partner countries, which marked their presence at the NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Brussels in early April. In receiving the four Indo-Pacific partners, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg notably said, “what happens in the Indo-Pacific matters for Europe. And what happens in Europe matters for you.”

Japan’s Key Role

Japan is the key actor in this new environment. As a sea-faring industrialized democracy, Japan has become a major security provider in the Western Pacific, along with the United States. Since the 2010s, it has implemented a series of measures related to collective defense and military build-up. It has inspired peer states with its thought leadership and visionary ideas, most notably a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP).

Indeed, serious concerns about the Chinese communist leadership’s hegemonic appetites have been a catalyst for Tokyo’s policy shift. Insightful policymakers also helped formulate bold foreign and security policies during much of the 2010s. All these developments were the fruit of Tokyo’s judicious decisions. Located in a strategically challenging region, Japan has no choice but to uphold the rules-based international order and cooperate with like-minded partners.

Now that its Indo-Pacific strategies have entered a new stage, Japan must extend its partnership to non-Indo-Pacific states, showing firm adherence to the rules-based international order. Despite its geographical distance from Japan, the Baltic Sea region (BSR) of Northeastern Europe is precisely where Japan’s cherished values and strategic interests resonate. As Europe seeks external support, Japan can offer an important contribution to Europe’s most sensitive region, one that will be appreciated by regional players and possibly rewarded in the future.

Firm Basis for Cooperation

Both Japan and NATO appear to have prepared for this stage. In January 2007, Shinzo Abe became the first Prime Minister of Japan to address the North Atlantic Council. During the second Abe administration (December 2012 to September 2020), Japan and NATO saw an accelerated collaboration with a Joint Political Declaration signed in April 2013 and an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme concluded in May 2014. Abe himself signed these two documents in Tokyo and in Brussels, respectively. Cooperation intensified in 2017, as Abe re-visited the NATO headquarters in July, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Tokyo in October. Building on this legacy of Abe, the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to NATO’s Madrid Summit in June 2022 attested to such growing cooperation between Japan and NATO.

The European Union has also been a preferred partner for Japan. At the 25th Japan–EU Summit held in July 2018, Japan and the EU signed both a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) and an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). According to the legally binding SPA, the signatories aim to “contribute jointly to the promotion of shared values and principles, in particular democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms,” among other principles.

Japan has also actively engaged with individual European states, including in Northeastern Europe. While Japan enjoys longstanding relations with the Scandinavian countries through dynastic ties, it has also sought increased partnerships with Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) since the end of the Cold War. In particular, Tokyo has pursued engagement with the Visegrád 4 (V4) states (Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) and the three Baltic states (B3).

For example, as part of Japan’s “panoramic diplomacy,” then-Prime Minister Abe visited Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in January 2018 and further met with the V4 leaders in Bratislava in April 2019. In the mid-2010s, Japan sporadically collaborated with the “Nordic-Baltic Eight” (NB8) grouping, which, however, does not include the southern Baltic states of Germany and Poland.

Strategic Moves

Japan’s attention to Northeastern Europe reflects the region’s gravitational pull. Encompassing Saint Petersburg and the Russian quasi-enclave of Kaliningrad, the Baltics are “a key strategic region,” according to Herdt and Zublic, where NATO’s and Russia’s “military and economic interests overlap.”

Since the 2010s, the region witnessed increased tension due to Moscow’s overt bellicosity. Confronted with Russia’s hybrid threats as well as China’s influence, democratic Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland have become Europe’s leading actors in combatting authoritarianism, advancing the region’s strategic importance. There is little surprise, then, that these four states are among the highest financial contributors to Ukraine as a percentage of GDP.

Even as NATO has operated an enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in the Baltic and other Eastern fronts since 2017, local actors have undertaken concerted efforts in the face of Russian revanchism. Most tellingly, much like the Indo-Pacific, new forms of minilateralism are rapidly emerging in Northeastern Europe.

Comprising Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom, the nonet Tallinn Pledge, issued in January 2023, is a recent example of a minilateral effort to assist and equip Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Moreover, the quadrilateral of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland signed a Joint Declaration to enhance their cooperation. In March 2023, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden further decided to create a “unified Nordic air defense.”

Geopolitical Ground Zero

Northeastern Europe is evolving into a geopolitical ground zero in Eurasia. The good news is that countries such as the B3 and Poland now cast a stern eye on China’s hegemonic behaviors. As regional players need outside support, and Tokyo is increasingly seen as a capable partner, Japan should seize this moment―a “capital moment” according to Jagannath P. Panda―and expand its multifold relations with the region.

A basis for further action has been established. Facing different strategic situations but sharing similar outlooks, Japan and the states in BSR will gain much from mutual engagement. Although some European leaders, like France’s Emmanuel Macron, still tend to appease Beijing and, there are limits to Europe’s actions, an enhanced partnership between Japan and Northeastern Europe may also facilitate securing the needed European support if a crisis occurs in East Asia around Taiwan.

On top of other ongoing partnerships, such as Japan’s contribution to NATO’s Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) for Ukraine, maritime security cooperation with NATO will be Japan’s valuable contribution. While the East Asian theater should be prioritized, Japan could participate in NATO’s naval drills in the Baltic Sea more frequently, as it did in August 2018. Military exercises are an important complement to Japan’s values-based diplomacy and pursuit of a rules-based international order. Furthermore, Japan’s engagement in the Baltics through these exercises should encourage NATO to reciprocate in East Asia.

Connectivity is another regional issue on which Japan must engage to promote regional integration, including through the Croat- and Polish-led Three Seas Initiative (3SI). This 12-member platform (comprising Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) is a promising avenue of engagement and investment for both the Japanese government and businesses. As Poland’s Józef Klemens Piłsudski once envisaged, it makes strategic sense, even for a country such as Japan, to promote and participate in a regional bloc on the western side of Russia.

Enhancing Political Dialogue

As a matter of course, Japan and these regional states must enhance political dialogue, as they have done thus far. Previous efforts have already borne fruit. For instance, Shinzo Abe’s 2018 visit to the B3 states led to the establishment of a Japan–Baltic Cooperation Dialogue, which held a third consultation in Tallinn in October 2022.

Nonetheless, the further challenge for Japan is to overcome the practical divide between the “Nordic” and “Baltic” sub-regions within Northeastern Europe (which, therefore, perpetuates a “Nordic-Baltic” appellation). In this regard, the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR), which encompasses Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden, offers a useful framework. There is as yet no indication of active Japanese involvement in EUSBSR.

As the driving force for a rules-based approach to Baltic security, this regional octet has significant potential. Whether within or outside an EU framework, Tokyo needs to explore political dialogues with these democratic states collectively and selectively. While upgrading the Japan–Baltic Cooperation Dialogue, Japan should seek ways to cooperate with the members of EUSBSR. Furthermore, forming a “Northeastern European Quad” with Poland, Sweden, and the U.S. would be a highly symbolic yet catalyzing move by Japan.

A Free and Open Baltic Sea?

Emulating the tenets of its Indo-Pacific policy, Japan may well advance the idea of a “Free and Open Baltic Sea” (FOBS) for the region. In April 2016, visiting Sweden and referring to Russian activities in the Baltic, the then-U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary, Robert O. Work, said, “it’s important that we maintain the Baltic Sea as free and open to all the Nordic and Baltic countries in the region” (emphasis added).

Although Work’s remarks were not followed by a clear conceptualization, they did correspond to Japan’s FOIP, which was launched four months later. Admittedly, a FOBS may run into opposition from those who wish to see a “NATO lake” in the Baltic Sea. It remains to be seen whether regional stakeholders embrace an analogous proposal for the FOIP, albeit one based on universal norms.

Faced with authoritarian regimes, democracies must build strong networks to protect themselves against coercion and predation. With shared values and interests, the countries of Northeastern Europe will play a critical role in Japanese foreign policy. For regional states, having Japan as a new cross-regional strategic partner is of great value. Bound by a common fate in a watershed moment, Japan and Northeastern Europe will further epitomize a growing strategic convergence across distant regions.