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Japan and Europe, co-operating for a democratic and peaceful world

By Professor Marie Söderberg
April 15, 2022
Foreign and development policy has over the years been my main fields of research concerning Japan. After working as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo for a few years at the end of the 1970s I went into academic research and wrote a PhD thesis titled “Japan’s Military Export Policy” (1986). At that time there was a lot of discussion on security issues in Japan. These were the days when Japan did not even have a Defence Ministry or a defence minister but only a Self Defence Bureau. The Self Defence Forces had very limited capabilities and could not train with other foreign forces even if the US guaranteed the military defence of Japan. In the early 1980s Japan adopted a “Comprehensive Security” policy with greater emphasis on economic and diplomatic rather than military means. This was in those early days a new holistic approach. My research came to focus on Japanese Official Development Policy (ODA policy), both through several case studies of projects in Asia, but also development as a tool for foreign policy. During those days Japanese development policy, with its heavy focus on loan aid and building infrastructure as well as its close cooperation with Japanese business was heavily criticized by other Western donors. With the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the Japanese pattern does not seem too bad and is inspiring some other European donors that moves in that direction as well.
Two people shaking hands, with computer overlay of a globe
Japan is playing a more active role on the global stage
The changing geopolitical and economic conditions in Asia and the rest of the world has led to substantial changes in the Japanese security situation. Military security is again considered essential, and the Self Defence Forces now train and cooperate with, besides the US military, other western forces as well. During the last years Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken every opportunity to promote the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) with ASEAN at the centre. This concept includes the promotion of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, free trade, pursuit of economic prosperity and the commitment for peace and stability.

A lot has also happened between Japan and the European Union. We have concluded not only and Economic Partnership Agreement (for free trade) but also a Strategic Partnership Agreement which is based on “shared values” promising each other to cooperate and together promote the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. Recently we concluded the EU-Japan “Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure” with the intention of providing an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. FOIP was all the time pushed forward from a Japanese perspective and landed well with the European countries. From a North European perspective however, the foremost threat was always from Russia.

With the present European security situation, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we can see that this was a real threat. The humanitarian crises, the suffering and war atrocities which are brought into our homes through media are on everyone’s minds. The number of refugees that arrive all have horror stories to tell. In light of this the Indo-Pacific problems seems like something far away….

Japan’s position on the Ukraine situation has been most supportive towards the Ukraine people. Japan has been participating and enforcing economic sanctions, condemning the Russian invasion and also supported European countries by redirecting some shipment of gas to secure the energy situation. This is quite different from the situation at the time of the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Of course, Japan supported the Western side then as well, but not with the same emphasis.

Today it seems like statements of shared values, promotion of rule of law, democracy and human rights really has moved up the ladder and that European and Japanese understanding and support for each other has increased substantially. At a web conference on FOIP organised out of the European University Institute in Florence the two Japanese keynote speakers emphasized the situation in Ukraine.
This was well done and sensible as this was what was on everyone’s mind at that moment. What has become very clear is that we need to assist and support each other to promote peace, democracy and law and order on a worldwide basis. What is happening in Ukraine also hangs together with FOIP and the development in the Indo-Pacific. Japan can calculate with European support there in the future.
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