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Waiting for new deliverables: Can the EU-Japan strategic partnership measure up to global and regional challenges?

10 April 2018
Bruno Hellendorff (Egmont-EPC Research Fellow)


The EU and Japan are now concluding two partnership agreements that should facilitate bilateral trade, streamline political and security cooperation and reinforce shared values. While they buttress the strategic scope of their cooperation as “like-minded” partners, their ratification may take a while. Furthermore, in order to measure up to contemporary global and regional challenges, the political and economic agreements need to be followed up by concrete initiatives in such realms as infrastructure investment (connectivity), maritime security and nuclear non-proliferation.

Common challenges: Following a historical account since Tokyo first accredited an Ambassador in 1959, Bruno Hellendorff explains that the EU and Japan each face the challenge of slow economic growth, ageing societies and 'post-industrial productive re-conversion’. He also examines how both partners have been dealing with an unprecedented level of insecurity in their respective neighbourhood and an erosion of a rule-based global order.

Lengthy ratification process: The ‘mixed' character of the partnership agreements and the precedent of the EU-Canada Free Trade Agreement suggests that the ratification process may take time in a post-Lisbon EU. In Japan too, resistances to the EPA have surfaced in legislative debates, most prominently around the interests of local farmers.

Shared values: As democratic societies with common positions on the rule of law, human rights and due process, the EU and Japan share converging views on the rules and principles that should underpin the global order. But the divergence between Brussels and Tokyo on capital punishment has created some swirl in the negotiation process, especially as a result of the 'essential elements' clauses required by the EU in the SPA.

In support of free and fair trade: the partnership agreements obviously take on a particular global significance after Brexit and the trade war between Washington and Beijing. When it comes into force, the EPA will constitute a strong signal that neither the EU nor Japan consider retrenchment from a fair and open trade regime an option. In the EU, belongs to the “new generation” free trade agreements that Brussels promotes as part of its economic diplomacy. Yet, the potential for such an agreement to constitute a ‘building block’ towards further global trade liberalisation will hinge on the tangible benefits that should accrue from the EPA.

More on connectivity: Japan and the EU need to do more on infrastructure investments. Through its Indo-Pacific initiative, Japan is already promoting the notion of ‘connectivity for stability and prosperity’ through ‘quality infrastructure’. Similarly, the EU is preparing a strategy on better connecting Europe to Asia. These agendas must fuel more joint initiatives that could help scale up efforts. For example, Japan and the EU should coordinate their promotion of international standards and best practices vis-à-vis third parties, including – but not limited to – China and its Belt and Road initiative. More coordination could also be foreseen in the context of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) where connectivity and infrastructure development are a cornerstone of cooperation.

More on security: In security terms, the EU and Japan cooperate on a wide array of issues: post-war reconstruction in the Balkans; stability and development in Central Asia, the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa; support for the Iran deal; non-proliferation and nuclear security; disaster management or climate change. Bilateral cooperation must now expand in critical domains such as space and cyber, maritime domain awareness, counter-terrorism and disaster risk management. More specifically, Japan and the EU should take further action on the ever more important issues of nuclear non-proliferation and maritime security, where they both have specific interests, expertise, and competences. In that regard, concrete instances of cooperation such as Japan’s support to the EU’s naval operations and to EU missions in Niger and Mali may serve as examples.

External challenges and uncertainties: External challenges and uncertainties can, however, hamper the effectiveness of the EU-Japan ‘natural partnership’. Globally, the erosion of a rule-based order is a challenge that the EU and Japan can neither manage separately or jointly. Both parties will continue to need the involvement of such global players as the US or China. At a time when China promotes a “New Type of International Relations Featuring Win-Win Cooperation” and the US an ‘America First’ policy of uncertain consequences, Japan and the EU should serve as standard bearers of strong regional and global regimes that serve the security and economic interests of a large number of countries. It is paramount to translate commitments into action to preserve the shared interests that underpin the EU-Japan partnerships.

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