New EU-Japan economic, strategic partnership may work better than past efforts

Bastian Harth

In 2001, the European Union and Japan announced an ambitious plan to promote political, security, and trade/economic collaboration in a Joint Action Plan for Cooperation.

It accomplished little. The European Commission repeatedly stated its disappointment, acknowledging that the plan lacked focus and covered too many policy areas without providing adequate instruments. Now, more than 15 years later, the EU and Japan are at it again.

The two parties signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) in Tokyo.

Once again, the aims are ambitious: to upgrade their relationship by facilitating “common solutions to common challenges,” as the European External Action Service (EEAS) puts it.

The EPA, which covers a third of the world’s gross domestic product and more than 600 million people, looks set to boost both sides’ economies. The outlook for the under-reported SPA is less clear.

The Economist once suggested that the SPA has “little to thrill the soul”: It cannot stop nukes or rockets from North Korea, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, or the stagnating power of both parties’ superpower ally, the United States.

However, the political and security implications of the SPA provide a boost to the morale of Tokyo, which has suffered a succession of significant political and economic blow of late.

Suddenly a bystander

Japan took its first hit when its premier ally, US President Donald Trump, suddenly yanked the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement – a massive trade deal with Japan and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations.

Then, Japan was a bystander at the North Korea-US summit in Singapore and now is a bystander once again as Pyongyang and Seoul strengthen their diplomatic relationship. China is applauding inter-Korean developments and has promised North Korean leader Kim Jung-un a new economic relationship.

Japan finds itself alone in Northeast Asia as it argues to keep all sanctions on North Korea because of the persevering topic of Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese citizens.

In the South China Sea, Japan is struggling to keep China in check. It has held its sixth defense policy dialogue with Vietnam, and has announced that one of its helicopter carriers will tour the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

At a time when Japan looks increasingly isolated, the EPA and SPA offer Japan a morale boost. This is particularly so given that the SPA offers much more political and policy specifics then its 2001 counterpart.

The SPA lays out the first-ever framework between the EU and Japan for cooperation and dialogue across various bilateral, regional, and multilateral issues such as cybercrime, disaster management, energy security, climate change, and aging populations. It also calls on both sides to synergize on promoting peace, stability, and international prosperity, and to recede from a sectoral and segmented approach to a comprehensive and legally binding cooperation framework.

Something entirely new

It also represents something entirely new for Japan, as Dr Irina Angelescu, an independent consultant based in Washington, DC, and Council on Foreign Relations Hitachi Fellow at the Institute of International Affairs, cited in her paper “Brexit, a Catalyst for Closer EU-Japan Relations?”

Before the SPA, Japanese diplomacy’s only related win was a vague 1954 agreement on political cooperation with Ethiopia to supplement its main alliance, the revised US-Japan security treaty of 1960. This makes the SPA key: It involves Japan in political and regional cooperation with Europe, promoting policies on fundamental human rights and economic, scientific, and cultural cooperation.

Most important, the SPA pledges to establish a joint committee to give the EU-Japan partnership a strategic direction. While details of the committee remain unclear, it is expected to narrow its issues to a handful – making the SPA much more specific than the Action Plan of 2001. Chances are that the committee will address the topics mentioned above.

Especially, cybersecurity is of enormous importance for Japan, given the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Millions of cyberattacks are predicted, and despite the country’s remarkable public safety, Japan has been falling behind on cybersecurity because of cultural, governmental, and organizational factors – making the country reliant on expertise from the EU.

Having collaborated closely with the United Kingdom on cybersecurity, the SPA ensures that Japanese cyber-collaboration with the EU continues after Britain exits the EU. Japan has shown immense interest in other European countries such as Estonia, with which it signed a cybersecurity cooperation agreement in January. The topic is of such importance that Japan is even going to join the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence in Tallinn.

For the EU, the SPA offers a gateway to the Asia-Pacific region – where it can attempt to fill the increasing power vacuum left by the US. In this sense, the SPA means that Japan can loosen its dependence on the US.

‘We are predictable’

Above all, the EPA and SPA send a clear message about the value of trade and cooperation to the world – aiming particularly at Trump as he leads a trade war with China and has ominously mentioned that trade with the EU has been terrible for the United States.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a strong critic of Trump in recent months, said: “The document we signed today is much more than a trade agreement.… What we’re saying is that we believe in open, fair and rules-based trade. What we are saying is that a trade agreement is not a zero-sum game, but a win-win for the involved parties.” This is a clear rebuff to Trump’s zero-sum beliefs.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, added: “Politically, [the agreement] is a light in the increasing darkness of international politics. We are sending a clear message that you can count on us.

“We are predictable – both Japan and [the] EU – predictable and responsible and will come to the defense of a world order based on rules, freedom and transparency and common sense. And this political dimension is even more visible today, tomorrow, than two months ago, and I am absolutely sure you know what I mean.”

The EPA and SPA await ratification by the European Parliament and the Japanese Diet. They are expected to enter force in 2019.


Bastian Harth
Bastian Harth is pursuing a Master of Arts in politics, governance and public policy at the University of Sheffield; his research focuses on how Brexit affects EU-Japan security relations. Previously, he studied at Tokyo International University, where he did his Bachelor’s in international relations. He is currently interning at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Tokyo.
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