In July, leaders from the European Union and Japan met in Tokyo to sign two complementary agreements that aim to usher in a new era of relations between these two great powers. While the two signatories appear at first glance to be natural allies, their relationship has long left much to be desired. This, however, is set to change, with the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) hoped to catalyze deeper and stronger relations.
The significance of these agreements to either party cannot be understated, with the European Commission going so far as to describe the EPA as “the most important bilateral trade agreement ever concluded by the European Union.” This bold claim is certainly well substantiated, with the European and Japanese economies cumulatively accounting for around a third of global GDP. Whilst the expected economic returns for both the EU and Japan are substantial, these twin agreements are also frequently assessed through a geostrategic lens. Such analysis regularly frames the increased cooperation between the EU and Japan within the context of a liberal world order in crisis. As such, it is widely presumed that these agreements demonstrate a commitment from both Brussels and Tokyo to uphold and reinforce the normative foundations of said liberal order.
It is clear that both signatories have a vested interest in bolstering the global political-economic environment that has underpinned their affluence and influence throughout the past 70 years. While it is likely that the EPA and SPA will function to support an increasingly fragile looking liberal world order, the implications of these agreements extend beyond the international sphere. In addition to the economic and geopolitical implications of the agreements, they are also sure to impact upon the domestic political environments of both Japan and the European Union. Literature paying consideration to these domestic, political implications is hard to come by; however, when one assesses the ambitions of the current Japanese administration, its value is evident.
Since his re-election in 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been decidedly candid in his intention to change the political paradigms that, throughout the past 70 years, have shaped modern Japan. With the EPA and SPA set to significantly impact Japan’s economy and strategic global role, the archipelago’s somewhat stagnant political landscape may be on the verge of momentous change. Considering Abe’s desire to redefine the norms that have long dominated Japanese politics, analyzing these agreements within the context of Shinzo Abe’s “grand strategy” is of clear value.
In light of the longevity and resilience demonstrated by Abe’s second stint in Japan’s top office, numerous commentators set about theorizing Abe’s strategic ambitions. Emerging as a popular concept from this debate was the notion of an Abe Doctrine, framing Abe’s political ambitions within the context of the Yoshida Doctrine, the approach orchestrated by post-war Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. With an emphasis on low-profile foreign policy, constrained defense posture, reliance on the U.S. security umbrella, and the rebuilding of economic and diplomatic ties with East Asian neighbors, the Yoshida Doctrine came to define Japan’s post-WWII political stance. As the notion of an Abe Doctrine gains traction among Japanese and non-Japanese commentators alike, its phrasing clearly implies that Abe’s grand strategy is likely to involve a shift away from past norms.
Literature discussing the Abe Doctrine stems from both critical and more neutral perspectives; however, there is consensus that Japan’s new grand strategy reflects a distinct shift in political priorities, with a major focus being on changing foreign and security policy. Chris Hughes, who originally coined the phrase, associates the Abe Doctrine with historical revisionism, military normalization, and conservative nationalism. Hughes argues that Abe hopes to shift Japan toward a more radical external agenda, where the anti-militaristic constraints established under Yoshida no longer hold such sway. Other literature on the subject offers a less critical perspective than Hughes, often arguing that Abe’s desire to change foreign and security policy is a pragmatic reaction to regional threats. However, while the forces driving these changes are widely debated, there is clear agreement throughout the literature that Abe’s eponymous doctrine aims to change Article 9 (the “pacifist clause”) of Japan’s constitution, reorient its foreign policy, and normalize its military.
Another less frequently discussed aspect of the Abe Doctrine is the need for a strong economy to underpin the prior mentioned strategic changes. The economic strategy of “Abenomics” has long been at the core of Abe’s political strategy, emerging as central to his premiership since returning to power in 2012. With Abe’s mandate and legitimacy depending to a large extent on his economic competency, the success of the Abe Doctrine relies to a significant extent on the robustness of the Japanese economy and the success of Abenomics.
Both in the lead-up to the signing of the EPA and in the following weeks, the positive economic impacts of this agreement have been widely touted. A recent publication by the European Commission says that this agreement between the EU and Japan “would enhance the competitiveness of their economies, make their markets more efficient and vibrant and ensure predictable commercial environment for further expansion of trade and investment between them.” These changes are in line with the elusive “third arrow” of Abenomics, encouraging structural reforms to complement the other two “arrows” of fiscal stimulus and monetary easing. As such, if the proposed outcomes of this wide-reaching agreement are realized, Abe’s ambitions to further strengthen the Japanese economy are likely to be significantly aided.
While it is highly likely that the EU-Japan EPA will act to bolster Japan’s long-struggling economy, it is arguable that the economic agreement serves strategic aims beyond increased financial returns. Japan’s National Security Strategy, set up under Abe in 2013, has discussed the role played by bilateral and multilateral agreements in furthering Japan’s strategic interests. Japan’s National Security Strategy (NSS) argues that involvement in agreements such as the EPA/SPA and the CPTPP (the revived Trans-Pacific Partnership following the United States’ withdrawal) help to both reinforce the rules-based economic order and counterbalance the growing global influence of China’s.
With certain aspects of the Abe Doctrine being advanced by the EPA, it is worth noting that these advances are both supported and encouraged by the agreement’s European partners. The facilitation of economic growth and the defense of the liberal international order are both desired within Brussels, but there are other aspects of the Abe Doctrine that have perhaps been overlooked by Japan’s allies. The desire to break from the “shackles of the past” and revamp foreign and security policy is central to the Abe Doctrine, and whereas the EPA doesn’t directly advance these particular strategic aims, the SPA’s expected impacts align more clearly with these ambitions.
Despite having less quantifiable outcomes than its economic-focused counterpart, the SPA certainly leaves scope for the Abe Doctrine’s strategic elements to be advanced. Throughout the document, there are clear links to core aspects of Abe’s strategic agenda, with many of the articles at the beginning of the SPA having a distinct connection to foreign and security policy. Although specific examples of future cooperation are not detailed within the SPA, it is widely assumed that its consolidation will lead to greater military and security cooperation. Examples of this are likely to include anti-piracy operations (e.g Operation Atalanta), and greater Japanese involvement in peacekeeping and other military operations worldwide. Despite the ambiguity as to what this flourishing strategic partnership is likely to involve, the areas of Japanese domestic policy that the SPA is most likely to affect are the Abe Doctrine’s two main focuses: foreign and security policy. This strategic agreement has the potential to open policy space within Japan that historical norms have long constrained, with Japan now poised to play a more proactive role in international security. Within the context of the Abe Doctrine, a shift toward more comprehensive and tangible security collaboration with the EU will directly aid in overturning Japan’s long-constrained foreign and security policies.
Among the fanfare surrounding the recent signing of the EPA and SPA, a large body of literature has emerged celebrating the role these agreements are likely to play in solidifying the liberal international order. Within this literature however, there is next to no mention of Abe’s strategic agenda or the role these agreements may play in its advancement. While this may not be cause for alarm within the EU, as Japan’s emerging grand strategy is not necessarily at odds with the European world view, Brussels should pay more consideration to this point. Abe’s association with the Japanese far-right and the rising potential for regional spats (despite recent warming of relations with China) resulting from a more assertive and militarily liberalized Japan have the potential to undermine regional stability in East Asia. In a time when the EU and the liberal world order is in desperate need of support, decision makers in Brussels must remain cautious and vigilant, even when dealing with allies.
Edward Danks is a Research Coordinator at the European Institute for Asian Studies and holds a Master’s degree in East Asian Relations from Edinburgh University. This article is an abridged version of a longer piece, accessible here,