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

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 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.

Is India shifting the goalposts in Indo-Pacific debate?

India’s participation in the ongoing Indo-Pacific debate and its decision to join the revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the US, Japan, India and Australia) have raised concerns in the corridors of power in Moscow, Beijing and other capitals.

Even Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) member states view the two back-to-back “Quad” meetings last month in Singapore with concern, as they fear the informal body could eclipse the bloc’s leading role in regional affairs. Then there are several other extra-regional stakeholders who also remain wary of the role of the Quad in this tectonic shift from the continental “Asia-Pacific” to the maritime “Indo-Pacific” geopolitical paradigm.

Understandably, India has been trying to address some of these misperceptions of its policies. In this regard, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s  Shangri-La Dialogue speech in Singapore last month has since emerged as the best elucidation of India’s Indo-Pacific vision as Act East policy as well.

To say the least, the Modi government seeks to expand the Indo-Pacific dialogue beyond the Quad. It seeks to build a larger consensus for making the Indo-Pacific a truly “free, open and inclusive” region that extends from the eastern shores of Africa to the western Pacific. This consensus-building process will be an uphill battle that is pregnant with possibilities, and the goalposts may change. The Indo-Pacific paradigm’s mainly western proponents see it as a bulwark against Chinese regional hegemony.

As part of India’s efforts to engage various Indo-Pacific stakeholders, the month of March saw French-Indian maritime dialogue result in a naval cooperation deal in the southern Indian Ocean. This was followed in May by India signing another defense pact with Indonesia and gaining access for the strategic development of Sumatra’s Sabang port. The last week of June saw Seychelles President Danny Faure visiting India to reaffirm the country’s access to its strategic Assumption Island. Against this backdrop, last week India formally announced that it wants to open Indo-Pacific dialogue with both Moscow and Beijing. To say the least, this has come as a surprise to many, even in these three countries!

To begin with, India has proposed that the Indo-Pacific be discussed at the soon-to-be-convened second China-India maritime dialogue. The first one was held in March 2016, but the Doklam crisis in 2017 derailed this initiative. It is now being revived following the success of April’s “informal” summit between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, which is believed to have reset China-India relations.

India sees China as the most important trigger for this shift from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific. The most visible element that joins these to oceans today is the high volume of ships carrying Chinese exports from China’s eastern coastline and bringing home imports of large amounts of gas and oil. China is today the largest trading partner with most littoral nations of the Indo-Pacific and therefore the strongest stakeholder in the formulation of this vision. But with regard to Indo-Pacific geopolitics, China remains skeptical about India’s credentials for engaging in, let alone initiating, Indo-Pacific discourses with China.

Chinese media outlets view the Indo-Pacific paradigm as a counter to rising China and think India is just jumping on the American anti-China bandwagon. China was clearly upset with India obtaining access to Sumatra’s Sabang port. Its Communist Party mouthpiece, Global Times, for instance, advised New Delhi in a June editorial not to “wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers.”

Last week, Global Times warned New Delhi that the benefits from its Indo-Pacific strategy may be “greatly outweighed by the costs to India,” adding that Beijing can offer more support and knowledge than the US. All this may have also put India on the defensive, but India’s response can also be read as New Delhi calling China’s bluff about India gaining more by engaging Beijing. Doubts also continue to be cast on whether this visible shift in India’s China policy is also Indo-Pacific policy, marking a decisive change, or is only a tactical move to avoid a second Doklam crisis before India’s coming general elections.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1, Modi said, “India does not see Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members.” He even alluded to his strategy of building a consensus across the Indo-Pacific community using “partnerships in format of three or more” countries. Policy initiatives so far seem to follow that remit and, therefore, after achieving a Russia-China-India triangular dialogue on the Indo-Pacific, India may engage other members of Asean as well as East African countries.

However, the first stop on this new journey, Beijing, is not going to be easy. India’s talk of ensuring a “free, open and inclusive” scenario and ‘”rule-based” navigation and connectivity in the Indo-Pacific is often interpreted by Beijing as a swipe against China’s assertive policies in the South China Sea, though India has never been directly critical of Beijing’s maritime policies. If anything, the last 18 months of whimsical policies from US President Donald Trump have witnessed India’s silent drift toward China and Russia. This was clearly showcased by Modi’s recent “informal” summits with Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin before he outlined his Indo-Pacific vision in his Shangri-La speech. This speech did not even mention the South China Sea, which can be seen as a marked change from the January 2015 US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, which emphasized “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”

Modi’s Shangri-La speech focused on the need for China and India to be “sensitive to each other’s interests” and policy initiatives since have alluded to this being a genuine undertaking. Today, India surely does not wish to provoke China or Russia, especially when the US commitment to the regional security architecture remains uncertain, though India has so far managed its relations with the US with minimum disruptions.

Important questions remain as to how Beijing will respond to New Delhi’s efforts to make the Indo-Pacific paradigm a reality? It is important to note that Global Times has also published some less hostile articles about China-India relations.

The intensifying trade war with the United States has seen Beijing making some unforeseen diplomatic overtures toward both Tokyo and New Delhi. While there remain questions about when and how Russia, China and India will engage on the Indo-Pacific, their recent interactions indicate that there will be significant cooperation, which is bound to have deeper systemic implications for not just the US and its allies but also for all the littoral nations of the Indo-Pacific rim.