international analysis and commentary

The EU and Japan: in search of a stronger Euro-Asia leg of the global system


There is reason to hope that a new phase of EU-Japan political dialogue may have begun. The March 25th summit between the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso and the Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, in the context of the XXI EU-Japan Summit, held in Tokyo, was truly significant. In particular, the opening of negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement and investment incentives in order to foster economic growth and job opportunities, diversifies and enriches the quality of this historic partnership. Moreover, this encourages new analytical perspectives on the potential strengthening of the so-called “weak side” – the Eurasian axis – of the world economic triangle formed by North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. It is a development that can provide the basis of a more balanced international system.

Following the end of the Cold War in Asia, the new debate within leading Japanese circles was centred on the need for Tokyo to frame its foreign policy within a new doctrine. Although the traditional Yoshida Doctrine delegated national security to the US and included economism among its primary goals, Japan was able to conceptualize a vision of soft security with aims that were widely shared by the EU. Especially after the signing of the EU-Japan Action Plan in 2001, Tokyo and Brussels initiated a fruitful and multilateral cooperation, as shown by their involvement in projects which are implemented in countries afflicted by instability and security problems.

The gradual acceptance of the idea of a Common European Defence does not seem to have affected Brussels’ inclination towards soft security, which (like the Japanese approach) focuses primarily on the development of foreign aid, technical assistance, the promotion of democracy, environmental protection, and combating terrorism. This remains the core of the EU’s external projection.

After the adoption at The Hague on July 18, 1991 of the Joint Declaration on relations between Japan and the European Community (which was orientated towards strengthening the relationship in economic terms, despite earlier trade frictions, and forming the starting point of a new decade of EC-Japan cooperation) a specific “EU factor” began to influence  political relations between Japan and Europe, although the former has continued, in parallel, to reinforce its bilateral ties with individual European States. Partly because of the complexity of the EU decision-making process, and partly because of a lack of understanding of how responsibility is distributed between the EU’s institutions and its members, Japanese policy makers still seem uncertain about Brussels’ real weight on the world stage, on which important decisions that affect Japan are taken by each member State and adopted by the Union as a whole. The failure of the referenda on the EU Constitutional Treaty in the Netherlands and France in 2005 were taken by Japanese politicians as a sign that EU integration has inherent limitations and that Tokyo must continue to deal with both the national governments and Brussels in order to “get the most out of Europe”. The logical approach adopted by Japan in expanding its relations with the EU after the end of the Cold War was to “diversify” its international relations and security policies, which until then had been almost entirely defined within the framework of its bilateral alliance with the US. Japan believed that privileged relations with the EU would redress the balance of its international diplomacy, making it less vulnerable to accusations that its regional, foreign and security policies needed to be checked, or even “approved” by Washington. In November 2002, a report from the Task Force on Foreign Relations – a body established to advise former Prime Minister Koizumi – identified the EU as a “strong partner” in certain areas of cooperation. As stressed by the report, in a new world order, Japan needs to have a partner in relation to every single issue. Europe could be construed as a rational choice of partner for some topics.

We should perhaps question whether “strategic dialogue” between the EU and Japan has a raison d’etre as a whole, and whether there are enough strategic issues of common interest in Asia to form the basis of a discussion. North Korea and its nuclear program is certainly one of these problems.

According to Chris Patten, the former EU Commissioner for External Relations, “the problem of EU-Japan relations is that there are no problems”. Except for the Iraqi crisis, disagreements on political issues between the EU and Japan are extremely rare. The non-military security cooperation between the two parties, the joint support for the ICC and the signing of numerous protocols for disarmament demonstrate the similarity of both actors’ approaches to international security and non-proliferation.

Although the progress made to date in terms of combining resources and coordinating policies relating to conflict prevention and peace building is not negligible, Brussels and Tokyo could certainly stand to do more. Moreover, both parties are notoriously “inconclusive” in terms of their public diplomacy. Both have proved mediocre at explaining their development and humanitarian aid policies to the outside world, with the result that they have often gone unnoticed or are simply taken – literally – for granted.

Over the past twenty years, many of the responses given by Europe and Japan on specific international issues have been placed in a multilateral framework, while simultaneously the bilateral dialogue has made progress. This bilateral link has also allowed for the creation of significant cooperation opportunities between the two regions – mainly due to the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) – and to counterbalance Washington’s position (a sort of common front of the “soft power” type) within organizations such as the UN and the WTO. The Japan-EU dialogue may, for these reasons, be considered in an “intermediate stage” on the way to a more effective mode of international engagement which will be trilateral in nature, directly involving the US as well as the EU and Japan. In light of the fundamental shifts of the global centers of gravity currently underway, both the bilateral and the wider trilateral channels of dialogue are more necessary than ever.