Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

An Unexpected Ally: Japan’s Up-and-Coming Partnership With the EU

The most recent Japan-EU agreement cements an all-around partnership between the two.

By Emese Schwarcz for
An Unexpected Ally: Japan’s Up-and-Coming Partnership With the EU

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker at a Japan-EU bilateral press conference, March 21, 2017.

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

Connectivity, the Belt and Road Initiative, regional cooperation, and infrastructure. Such were the fundamental talking points during the EU-Asia Connectivity Forum at the Charlemagne building of the European Commission, organized by the European Political Strategy Center. But what of the outcomes? What were the conclusions of the discussions?

On September 27, the European Commission convened a large-scale conference about connectivity strategies between Asia and the European continent. I had the pleasure to attend as a member of the audience; therefore, I was lucky enough to witness Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sign a partnership agreement between the country of Japan and the European Union. The agreement is quite important in itself but, before shaking hands on the document, Abe delivered an interesting keynote speech as well.

In his speech, the prime minister pointed to the already existing agreements between the two actors, namely the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) of 2017 and the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) of 2018. Both of these documents certainly signal a strong commitment toward partnering up, which should not be disregarded, especially when considering the ongoing troubles with South Korean-Japanese economic ties that unfolded this summer. The EU-Japan EPA will see tariffs abolished on agri-food (most importantly, cheese and wine), industrial (such as chemical and textile), fishery, and wood products, among others, making this EPA the world’s largest free trade agreement. The car industry will also receive advantages in the coming years. Interestingly, however, the EU went against Japan’s newly reinvigorated industry and did not lift its self-imposed ban on whale meat import. Other than trade benefits, the agreement also touches upon labor rights as well as environmental and data protection.

The SPA, however, is much more of a political agreement, as it expresses the commitment to shared values, such as the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. Japan, being a democratic powerhouse of East Asia, takes pride in its representative role. As such, this SPA is unlike any other: it is legally binding. And the contents? The document calls forth resolve to address global challenges, such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, terrorism, poverty, diseases, and threats to maritime territories, outer space, and cyberspace. Overall, it outlines partnering up in protecting freedom, security, and justice.

No small feat — and very ambitious too. With these two agreements, Japan and the EU proclaimed their alliance, which might prove to be very beneficial — and not just economically. Amid natural disasters and ailing economic ties with traditional allies (e.g. South Korea or the United States), Japan will need a helping hand to avoid another dragging recession like the one that broke the country for almost two decades at the beginning of the Heisei Era (1989–2019). Gaining an ally in security and geopolitics is also necessary for Japan, considering the changing regional power landscape in East Asia. A joint assistance activity has already been launched, wherein Japan and the EU joined forces in combating piracy near the Horn of Africa.

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With a preamble like this, what more can we expect from the brand new partnership agreement? The answer is easy. The new agreement contains everything left out from the previous two that might help accelerate connectivity. As Parag Khanna said in his speech later in the EU-Asia Connectivity Forum, the 21st century’s geopolitics is all about competitive connectivity. Now, Japan has definitely found a way to score a big one: the new agreement touches upon energy, transport, and people-to-people exchanges, much like China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is interesting, however, that the agreement builds on promises about features that were lacking in the BRI, such as the financial sustainability, transparency, and quality of infrastructure projects. These infrastructure projects are targeting regions such as the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Indo-Pacific, and the African continent — the very same regions that the BRI wants to operate in. Not only that, but the mere mention of the “Indo-Pacific” is itself a victory for Japan.

The Indo-Pacific region was put into spotlight in 2016, when, after expressing concerns about joining the BRI initiative, Abe introduced the Japanese answer to the trend of connectivity and cross-regional infrastructure projects. Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy is a $50 billion venture that promises investments with the aim of building high-quality infrastructure that is resilient to natural disasters, increases employment, expands educational opportunities, and facilitates foreign direct investment. Another organic element of the strategy is that it stands behind values such as the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and free trade — along with the free and open usage of trade routes. Abe explained that the goal of FOIP is not to challenge or compete with the BRI, but rather to complement it by providing an alternative to the countries interested. However, the project still very much resembles the Chinese initiative.

With the EU on board by promoting joint infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific region, Japan has certainly earned a powerful ally. The triple partnership is bound to be fruitful, especially in Japan’s case: Abe can surely claim it as another element of his Abenomics policy, which is a great tool for boosting electoral support toward the cabinet. In his words, cheese and wine are very important for Japanese customers.

On a serious note though, partnering up with the European Union is a judicious political move: where geopolitics fail, and Japan-U.S. relations are not comforting enough, another ally from another region might be necessary in order to secure new trade routes. And this is also beneficial for the EU, because — as Parag Khanna noted — the Asian region is an economic powerhouse (conducting 60 percent of global trade), one that has a potential not yet utilized by the Western powers. It remains to be seen how this relationship between Japan and the EU evolves even further.

Emese Schwarcz is an international relations expert with a specialization in Japanese politics. She is currently responsible for managing Japanese relations and organizing events regarding East Asia at a Hungarian think-tank, the Antall József Knowledge Centre.