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Prospects for EU-Japan relations

19 June 2015

On 2 June the EU-Asia Centre held a panel discussion to discuss the outcome of the  23rd EU-Japan summit on 29 May and prospects for EU-Japan relations. Opening the event, Fraser Cameron said that there was a general feeling that during the past decade EU-Japan relations had not fulfilled expectations. Now, as both sides were in the midst of the negotiations for an EU-Japan Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and a strategic partnership agreement, there were renewed hopes for a deeper partnership. 

Jiro Okuyama, Deputy Chief of the Mission of Japan to the EU , set the scene by stating that countries in Asia need to adapt to a significantly changed strategic environment. Japan's answer is presented in its first ever published national security strategy, adopted in 2013, and the recent "Legislation for Peace and Security". In this context, Japan was honoured to be the first of the EU’s strategic partners with which it held a summit. The  summit, as documented in its joint statement, has in a very timely manner reconfirmed the importance the two partners attach to their relationship. More precisely, this renewed commitment is expressed in the new momentum the summit injected into the EU-Japan FTA negotiations and the longstanding partnership more generally. Okuyama stressed the fruitful cooperation the EU and Japan enjoy on Russia/Ukraine, in the coordination of CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy) missions and Japanese official development assistance in Mali, Niger and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the fight against piracy at the coast of Somalia. Potential for deepened cooperation was seen in the areas of cyber security, outer space, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. Okuyama highlighted that the EU and Japan summit for the first time ever produced a major document on cooperation in the field of science and technology, indicating increased importance of this policy field in the partners’ relationship.


Shada Islam, Director of Policy at Friends of Europe, expanded the focus of the discussion to wider Asia. She explicitly welcomed that the EU's pivot to Asia is taking form under the High Representative/ Vice President Mogherini. The recent joint communication of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Commission about EU-ASEAN relations and the upcoming EU-China summit are indicative of this. Mogherini's Shangri La speech was very positively received and indicative of the new EU approach towards Asia, stating that the EU is more than just a relevant trading partner to Asia. In light of the EU-Japan summit, Shada Islam remarked that EU-Japan relations have been underperforming for years. Concluding the EU-Japan FTA could be a decisive step to not only boost this partnership economically, but also politically. The areas of increased EU-Japan cooperation are plenty. The EU should be appreciative of Japan's expertise in disaster relief and in official development assistance. It is not to be forgotten that it was indeed not China to economically engage first with Latin America and Africa, but Japan. The country’s stable relationship with the Lower Mekong region in particular provides an opportunity for fruitful EU-Japan cooperation.


Julian Wilson, Head of Division for Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand at the EEAS, shared his personal impressions of the EU-Japan summit, highlighting that the chemistry between the partners has been remarkably good. This is grounded in the great similarities of the EU and Japan that can be observed in shared views on foreign policy issues and in hands-on bilateral cooperation. This particular summit was successful in taking this relationship to the next level by setting a deadline for concluding the EU-Japan FTA. With Japan's negotiation capacity being transferred from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the EU-Japan FTA and the deadline for FTA conclusion set, the process will accelerate. An agreement is already expected in late 2015 or early 2016. Equally important, the negotiations of the strategic partnership agreement are well on track and have passed the 50% mark, with less contentious issues being left for discussion. Beyond these two corner stones of EU-Japan relations, Wilson welcomed the fruitful exchange about interpretation of history at the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, bearing the potential of positively impacting relations between Japan, South Korea and China. With regard to EU-Japan relations, Wilson highlighted the successful military staff-to-staff cooperation in the year of 2014, which should be built upon. He further emphasized that the area of science and technology was identified as a natural area of cooperation at the EU-Japan summit, with a clear link between President Juncker's agenda and the Japanese priorities. Japanese engagement on climate change and submitting Intended Nationally Determined Contributions for COP21 was viewed less positively and the EU's wish to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the country that gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol being clearly articulated.


Luis Simon, Research Professor for International Security at the Free University of Brussels, deepened the discussion of the foreign policy and security policy aspects of EU-Japan relations, which he differentiated in three layers. First, the EU and Japan share very similar views on issues of global importance, such as terrorism, cyber security, outer space and non-proliferation. The second level, however, addressing regional security issues, is the one most challenging for EU-Japan cooperation. Comparing the East and South China Sea with the Russian annexation of Crimea, Simon emphasised that Japan had made a sacrifice in adopting sanctions for Russia, a country Japan generally views favourable in terms of future economic cooperation. The EU, however, had not adopted language on the East and South China Sea that Japan deems clear enough. Third, Simon remarked that a level between global and regional challenges, which would for example include the Indian Ocean, Central Asia and the Arctic, provide ample opportunity for EU-Japan cooperation since both are in favour of rules-based approaches. With regard to the strategic partnership agreement, Simon?Wilson wishes to see ambitious chapters on defence diplomacy and defence industry cooperation, areas already flouring in Japan's relationships with France and the United Kingdom.


A lively discussion between the panellists and the audience ensued. Amongst other topics, the limits of Japan's position on climate change and the EU's position on the East and South China Sea were elaborated. Furthermore, participants exchanged views on the relative importance of the EU's soft power and initiatives dealing with non-traditional security issues in Asia. Last but not least, the need for infrastructure projects in Asia and the anticipated role of the Chinese Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank were discussed.