Italy and Japan Are Deepening Military-Industrial Ties. The US Should Help
Yes, even though they’re working on Europe’s new fighter jet.
U.S. leaders should help foster the intensifying strategic, military, and diplomatic relationship between Italy and Japan, which could lead the two allies to take greater responsibilities in the wider Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific space.
On Jan. 10, the two countries announced that they would to elevate their relationship to a “strategic partnership,” including a foreign-and-defense consultation mechanism that will resemble the ones Japan has with the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.
That came a month after Tokyo said it would join Italy and the United Kingdom in the Global Combat Air Program, the newly renamed effort to develop and manufacture a supersonic, sixth-generation combat jet named Tempest. Mitsubishi will join BAE Systems and Leonardo on the project, which aims to start work next year on a jet that will begin to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon in 2035. In a statement, the three nations said the program signals the relevance of “Future interoperability with the United States, with NATO and with our partners across Europe, the Indo-Pacific and globally.”
The project brings together three middle powers with similar geopolitical personalities: countries with global economic and cultural presence whose security interests have for decades been more regionally focused but which are looking to strengthen their presence even in areas that do not affect their security immediately but that are more and more relevant in global security balances.
Tokyo made this explicit in the latest version of its National Security Strategy, released just days before it joined the Tempest effort. Considerably revised since its first version in 2013, the new version reflects Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s subsequent belligerence, such as official Chinese media warning that Japan’s risks becoming the “Ukraine of Asia” if it follows the United States and its strategy. Far from being cowed, these recent events appear to have solidified Tokyo’s resolve to become a more robust, pro-active, and capable actor in the realm of defense.
The GCAP program will help Japan, Italy, and Great Britain expand on the industrial cooperation they began while developing the U.S.-led F-35 program. Its technology accelerator agreement benefit not just the defense sector but other industrial and research areas as well. The collaboration can be “an important driver for trade and economic relations between Rome and Tokyo,” as Italy’s Defense Minister Guido Crosetto put it. Inasmuch as the GCAP is likely to draw espionage efforts from China and Russia, this project will also boost intelligence cooperation.
Even though the Tempest effort represents a divergence from Japan’s reliance on developing, buying, and license-producing U.S. weapons, its new partnership should be encouraged and fostered by U.S. political and military leaders. It should help Italy, Japan, and the UK take on more military responsibilities in the future, consistent with the American ambition to increase burden-sharing among allies. Moreover, as global multipolar competition intensifies, countries like China and Russia – as shown during the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine – are willing to use the tools they control, from supply chain to energy, to project power and strengthen influence. As such, developing capabilities and making the respective defense industries more competitive and robust represents the best way to reduce industrial vulnerabilities that could be exploited and used by rivals to secure political, strategic, and economic gains.
Tokyo’s rearmament may raise some alarms in Asia, but its neighbors must recognize that the situation is different from the past. A stronger and more capable Japan can help the United States in Asia keep the situation in check and become a tremendous asset to preserve Taiwan’s security and independence. This should also help other Asian countries to accept the evolution of Japanese defense policy.
There is a historical lesson to be learned. Japan began looking for new combat-jet partners after the Americans declined to sell them the F-22. The issue of technology transfer remains a vital interest, but the United States should be more accommodating with some partners whose military development is in Washington’s interest. The GCAP nations fall squarely in this category.
Dario Cristiani is Senior Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C.