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EU-Japan relations have come a long way since they first entered into trade negotiations in the 1970s. Their bilateral relationship was characterized by a series of confrontations until the early 1990s, after which a more cooperative strain began to emerge. Japan was then no longer perceived as the challenger to the global economic order. Like the European economies it was itself being challenged by the rise of China as well as the changes in the international economic system where the massive growth of foreign direct investment blurred the traditional lines of confrontations that gad so far dominated trade relations. Moreover, a new global interdependence required new cooperative approaches.
The 1990s also marked a qualitative change in the relationship. With the 1991 “Joint-Declaration on Relations between the European Community and its Member States and Japan”, the EU and Japan embarked on a political and security dialogue that only grew stronger with the passage of time, leading to the “Joint Action Plan for EU-Japan Cooperation” in 2001. The document identified four main areas of cooperation including the promotion of peace and security, the strengthening of economic and trade partnerships, addressing global and societal changes, and bringing together people and cultures. Yet, if trade relations have increased (at least in absolute terms), cooperation in matters of security remain underdeveloped.
This relationship is now entering a new phase. Since 2013, EU and Japan have embarked on negotiations on a strategic partnership as well as a comprehensive preferential trade accord. An ambitious and comprehensive, legally-binding Framework Partnership Agreement (FPA) is intended to further political relations across a wide range of political, global and sectoral issues, including security. In parallel, a Free Trade Agreement is being negotiated with the objective of unlocking the potential bilateral economic relationship by reducing barriers to trade in goods and services and increasing investment flows between the EU and Japan.
If successfully concluded, the EU-Japan Free Trade Agreement is likely to result in one of the most significant trade corridors eve created. Trade relations remain under-developed and have been declining in relative terms over the past two decades. Together, these agreements –whose importance has once again been underlined during the last Japan-EU summit –are supposed to bring EU-Japan relations to a new phase of economic and political revival. In this perspective, although the negotiations are likely to be difficult, the concessions accepted by Japan in the negotiations for the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) should help finalize the FTA with the EU.
The negotiations for the FPA are of course different but no less complex than the FTA if for different reasons. If the EU and Japan share common values, as well as a similar conception of security, they appear to have difficulties in defining a common agenda. The problem is much less a lack of common than the realization that there may be costs associated to any common posture that may, rightly or wrongly, perceived as confrontational vis-à-vis China. Most EU member states recognize the challenge that the erratic behavior of the North Korean regime, or the intensification of Russian military activities, create for Japan.
Moreover, they appreciate Japan’s willingness in standing with the EU and the US to adopt economic sanctions against Russia, following the annexation of Crimea and the troubles in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Yet, they are still hesitant to respond in any meaningful way to Tokyo’s request regarding the much larger challenge of China’s behavior in the South and East China Sea. What is at stake here is not the outcome of the disputes - like the US, the EU does not take sides - but the support of the legal principles which sustain the existing regional security environment. While Europe’s hesitation may be understandable at a time when the EU is tackling a massive migration crisis ever, it feeds Japan’s skepticism of the EU as a potential security partner.
The FPA is therefore likely to institutionalize existing cooperation on an ad hoc basis. Together with the new Japanese defense guidelines, it will indeed facilitate the deployment of Japan’s Self Defense Forces (JSDF) in Europe’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions, but will constitute at best a welcome, useful, but not essential development of EU-Japan security cooperation.
In this context, even the FTA is likely to be interpreted differently by both sides. Of particular significance to Tokyo is the fact that the EU-Japan FTA is being negotiated at the same time than two other major trade agreements, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (TTIP) and the TPP. Those three FTAs are sometimes, rightly or wrongly, understood in Japan as a way of containing China economically much in the way, President Obama himself presented the TPP to the American public. Interestingly the potentially strategic character of the FTA tends to be sidelined in the EU, which exclusively emphasizes its economic dimension.
These two perceptions are unlikely to be fully reconciled anytime soon. It would be futile to try to minimize the divergence between the EU and Japan on such essential issues and hope for a speedy rapprochement. From a Japanese perspective, the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding the dispute between China and the Philippines about the Spratly Island dispute will be a test of the European resolve.
So far, however, both the EU and Japan have been essentially reacting to events in a situation structured more and more by the US-China rivalry, with an increasingly corrosive impact on the Asian security architecture. The EU and Japan could jointly explore the possibility to elaborate new frameworks to engage Beijing, compatible with the US alliance but not hostile to China. The securitization of the Indian Ocean where Japan and EU member states have been cooperating could be one such place where the security cooperation could be further developed, building on the experience of the anti-piracy operation Atalanta, gradually extending the scope of its activities to evolve into a role comparable to the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting (Plus) in Southeast Asia. The type of actions required would remain within the reach and capabilities of both actors, be of benefit to all and provide a framework for an eventual engagement of China, complementing the ASEAN led institutions and progressively establishing a security balance in the Indo-Pacific region. This, with the help of Japan, could be the prelude to making the EU and/or its member states, an active security actor in the entire region; one which not only shares Japan’s interpretation of international law but has ratified the relevant UN convention. The EU would not have to renouncing its own identity while Japan would see its own position strengthened. As compared to the present situation this would amount to a real paradigm change , and one within reach of both sides.