In March 2022, a rather unusual event took place in Athens. Co-organized by Panteion University and the Japanese Embassy in Greece, a hybrid workshop was successfully completed, aiming at “Establishing a Free and Open Maritime Order” with a focus on bilateral cooperation between the two countries. It is perhaps the first time in the last decade that academics and government officials between Japan and Greece have come together at a public event dedicated to maritime security and cooperation.
The timing of the event was not random. Greece’s relationship with Turkey is deteriorating and tensions are escalating dangerously due to their maritime disputes in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The dispute is complicated, and perceptions from each side are different. According to Turkey, for instance, everything starts back in 1923 and the Treaty of Lausanne, the main treaty between the two countries concerning the border delimitation and demarcation, including of the Aegean Sea. But the main issue in the last decades is the potential undersea resources of the maritime area and control of the waters and seabed.
Of course, tensions are nothing new in the historically troubled bilateral relationship between the two nations. However, back in summer 2020, the crisis almost turned into an accident, which could easily turn into a conflict. The Turkish survey ship Oruc Reis, along with a part of the Turkish fleet, came face-to-face with their Greek counterparts in the eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish side was willing to proceed to seismic surveys in the Greek-claimed part of the seabed without the necessary permission as provisioned by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). The result was fleets on high alert, two warships colliding, and foreign navies intervening. In a more general context, it was the longest and worst crisis since the events of the 1970s, which culminated in the Turkish invasion in Cyprus.
Certain elements of the above may sound familiar to Asia watchers. In the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, talks go nowhere and both countries have different perceptions fueled by nationalism and their respective domestic political agendas. The equivalent of the Lausanne Treaty is the Treaty of Shimonoseki, with different interpretations from the parties involved. Collisions in the disputed waters are frequent, especially since 2010, with the last notable one, also by coincidence in 2020, between a Japanese naval ship and a Chinese fishing vessel, with the Japanese vessel receiving damage. Of course, the main issue concerns the ownership of the islands and subsequent demarcation of the sea areas, which will in turn affect the exploitation of the potential natural resources on the seabed.
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Hence, it is indeed not a surprise that Japan found a potential ally in Greece and vice versa. For a start, both are maritime nations, and both are in the top three of ship-owning countries worldwide. Both are also adopting a defensive posture in terms of security policy, and are facing similar threats and security dilemmas in their neighborhoods. In the eyes of Greece, Turkey is a revisionist power that unilaterally challenges the status quo and poses threats to the regional and international security. For Japan, this role is played by China. Both countries feel that their territorial sovereignty is threatened and are siding with international law in order to find solutions; their neighbors, however, have a different interpretation of reality and the law.
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As a result, the maritime-themed workshop between the two countries was a pleasant surprise. An exchange of ideas for cooperation is always the first step, especially in the areas of strategic dialogue and joint training. As expressed by the Japanese side and professors from Keio and Tokyo Universities, future cooperation could include navy-to-navy and coast guard-to-coast guard Staff talks; exchanges on maritime domain awareness (MDA) and best practices at sea; and more importantly, bilateral participation in regional exercises and training in the Pacific and the Mediterranean Sea.
The title of the event is notable as well. The call to establish a “Free and Open Maritime Order” is just a slight alteration of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, which Japan has been following since the Abe administration. The goals of the latter are, very briefly, to connect the “Two Continents” (Africa and Asia) and the “Two Oceans” (the Pacific and the Indian), based on the principles of “international cooperation” and of a diplomatic initiative with a “panoramic perspective of the world map.” The steps toward Greco-Japanese cooperation are an extension of this strategy, moving it a past the east coast of Africa. In that sense, it’s a recognition of the important geopolitical area of the eastern Mediterranean and the potential chokepoints on the Aegean Sea.
It is also an indirect step toward the enhancement of the EU-Japan bilateral relationship and bolstering Japanese influence in the European Union through Greece. And Japan is not alone is seeing this opportunity. Greece became a part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through a years-long process to bolster China’s influence in the European country.
The Chinese conglomerate COSCO de facto controls one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean, Piraeus, and is a significant shareholder of the second biggest port of Greece in Thessaloniki. In public diplomacy terms, the cooperation and understanding between China and Greece has advanced enormously during the last decade; this engagement has translated into political gains for the Chinese. One prominent example was an incident back in 2017, when Greece blocked an EU statement criticizing the human rights record of China in the United Nations. At the time, the Greek foreign minister stated the resolution was an “unconstructive criticism of China.”
Of course, Japan is not China, and their goals are different. There is no Japanese equivalent of China’s BRI project, aiming to expand into the Balkans. That said, the China-Greece relationship is more advanced; that also means that the Greco-Japanese one has its limits.
Nonetheless, the new steps toward Greece-Japan engagement should be enhanced and cultivated further. In security and defense policy, Greece can and should invest in bilateral talks with Japan, as mentioned earlier. In tactical terms, engagement in military and especially naval exercises should become the norm, taking advantage of the Japanese military technology, experience, and special relationship with the United States. Washington is a security provider for both countries, through NATO and subsequent bilateral treaties with Greece, and through a special long-standing military alliance with Japan.
The problem, however, is more on the Greek side. Greece for decades engaged in a short-sighted, neighbor-oriented foreign policy. The top priority in the agenda was, justifiably, Turkey; the second priority was a name dispute with a small neighbor to the north, draining large politico-diplomatic resources due to misrepresented cultural imageries and nationalistic sentiments. Now, with the latter issue resolved, Greece finally seems willing to catch up with the world. Greece has become engaged in African diplomacy, trying to secure votes for a U.N. Security Council placement, and in East Asia as well, with following visits of the minister of foreign affairs to India and Japan, for instance.
For Greece, cultivating a relationship with Japan, other than public diplomacy events and yearly celebrations in their embassies, will lead to the incorporation of useful lessons on how to deal with maritime disputes and how to bolster its deterrence posture. The exchange of ideas will be valuable for understanding how to respond together to common existential threats from their neighbors, while taking the differences into account. It is a unique opportunity to gain experience and knowledge from a global actor and potential ally.
Japan seems ready to contribute; Greece needs to step up.