(Analysis) The Return of Hard Geopolitics: Towards a New Era of EU-Japan Strategic Cooperation?

Fiona De Cuyper

In the past, relations between the European Union (EU) and Japan were largely characterized by an “expectations deficit,” where both actors were relatively uninterested in each other because they did not harbor any expectations towards one another. The EU was mainly preoccupied with internal politics and deepening integration and was still largely an economic player with little engagement regarding foreign policy, especially when it came to remote areas like the Indo-Pacific. Foreign policy was also an entirely national competence for a long time, leaving little room for the Union to act in this regard. This changed over time, with the introduction of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the Common Security and Defence Policy and the increasing role of the European External Action Service and EU Delegations worldwide.

Japan, on the other hand, was unsure about what the EU exactly constituted and why they should engage with it. This is not bewildering as the EU can be considered neither a conventional international organization nor a sovereign entity. Japan has always engaged with individual member states, like Germany and France, and preferred to keep it that way. Moreover, Japan’s foreign policy was long characterized by the Yoshida Doctrine, which asserted a low-profile, economically oriented diplomatic stance and uni-dimensional foreign policy. When the late Shinzo Abe became the Japanese Prime Minister for the first time in 2006, he ushered in a new era of Japanese foreign policy, marked by a revolutionary more open approach to the international arena. This significantly affected Japan’s interest in the EU.

Moving Beyond the “Expectations Deficit”

Japan and the EU deepened their relations considerably over the last decades. Cooperation started to increase with the 1991 Hague Declaration and the 2001 Joint Action Plan. More recently, the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) and the Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure were either signed or enforced in 2019. These documents outlined how the two actors could move closer and promote their shared values in the context of increasing globalization and rising autocratic powers.

“The fact that the EU and Japan share a host of fundamental values like democracy, the rule of law and human rights and are both dedicated to maintaining the liberal and rules-based international order along with other like-minded partners constitutes the foundation for the EU-Japan partnership.”

Michito Tsuruoka, Associate Professor at Keio University, Japan. 2019.

However, on February 24, 2022, the rules-based international order was shaken to its very core. A sovereign nation was invaded without justification, sparking global outrage. This provided a wakeup call for the EU and clearly presented the need for a coherent and united front with like-minded actors to counter this security threat so close to the European borders. This article assesses how Japan fits into this equation and whether it has become a stronger partner for the EU in this context. Cooperation on a strategic level used to be limited, with the SPA-document counting 46 pages as opposed to the 562 pages of the EPA. However, in light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, fertile ground has been found for a deepening of strategic ties.

Japan & Europe Changing Profiles of Cooperation

European Council President Donald Tusk and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walking in the Council building in Brussels in 2017.
President of the European Council Donald Tusk and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the EU-Japan Summit in Brussels in 2017. Source: Asia Times.

Japan, being the world’s third largest economy, traditionally enjoyed mainly economic and trade attention by the EU. This was also in line with the Union’s initial approach to foreign policy, which was solely focused on trade relations. In recent years, however, a ‘new’ EU foreign policy is moving beyond economic diplomacy, emphasizing instead multilateralism, norms and values. Europe started to identify itself as a normative power and a “force for good.” This was largely in line with Japan’s new approach to foreign policy, centered around promoting values and norms such as human rights and freedoms. This rendered the EU an important diplomatic partner for the island nation and vice versa as Japan is a trusted partner for the EU in the Indo-Pacific.

A milestone that provided an official framework for political and security cooperation was the Strategic Partnership Agreement. The SPA constituted the first-ever bilateral framework agreement between the EU and Japan that promotes cooperation and joint actions across many areas of common interest, such as climate change, energy, digital, connectivity, research and innovation, space, security and defence and human rights. In the meantime, the EU published the EU Global Strategy in 2016, which outlined the ambitions for the future of EU external action. With the release of the Strategy, it became clear that there were significant similarities between Japan and the EU concerning international engagement, including the goal to reflect strategic priorities in development policy.

The increasingly strategic nature of the Japan-EU partnership is not unusual and it makes sense that the two actors would reach out to one another given their shared past of looking inwards. Both the EU and Japan are new strategic actors that excessively rely on their soft power influence and “share the challenge of raising their security and defense profiles.” Japan is still heavily reliant on the United States for matters of external security in light of Chinese, Russian and North Korean assertiveness. In addition, the island nation is legally not allowed to have an army, which is enshrined in Article 9 of its constitution, and adhered to a strictly pacifist stance. The country did bend the rules a little and established its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in 1954, but this was purely for defensive purposes and the SDF are not in the possession of any offensive weaponry.

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” 

Art. 9 of the Japanese Constitution

The EU, on the other hand, only recently started developing — very limited — competences in the field of security and defense and is also still excessively reliant on the United States, under the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), when it comes to defending the continent. Both actors also foster complex relations with Russia, a neighboring country for both Japan and the Union. These similarities set the scene for further strategic engagement and provided a geographically distant ally in a key region for both actors.

EU-Japan Strategic Convergence Post-Ukrainian Invasion

Nijo Castle in Kyoto lit up in the colors of the Ukrainian flag to show Japan’s solidarity with the country. Source: Japanese Government.

Against the backdrop of increasingly meaningful strategic relations over the past couple of years, the crisis that continues to unfold in Ukraine has proven to provide “yet another common strategic focus and opens an array of concrete opportunities for cooperation.”

Japan is surrounded by three authoritarian powers and it is becoming increasingly clear that they are not afraid to lash out. There are even rumors based on an allegedly leaked email from the FSB (Russia’s secret service) that Russia was planning to invade Japan instead of Ukraine, in the context of the enduring tensions over the Kuril island group. This renders connections with likeminded and normative partners, like Europe, ever more important for Japan and also explains why the country is increasingly establishing relations with NATO. The island nation, represented by its Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, was present for the first time at the NATO Summit on April 7, 2022. During the Summit, he stated that “[a]s we confront serious challenges to the international order, as symbolized by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific region cannot be discussed separately.” The fact that Japan also got invited to the subsequent June meeting showed that this was not just a one-time occurrence.

Conversely, the EU is experiencing the crumbling of the rules-based international order on its very doorstep, with the conflict in Ukraine likely to be a protracted one. Depending on the war’s outcome, Russia could decline in the coming years thereby permitting China to gain more and more ground in Europe and globally. This renders the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy all the more relevant. Specifically, Japan’s place within the EU’s extra-regional strategy is key as the island state is strategically located between China, Russia and North Korea. In line with this, Japan could provide a ‘gateway’ for the promotion and protection of democratic norms and values in the region. On March 21, 2022, while the war in Ukraine raged on, the EU published its first defense white paper, the Strategic Compass, which seeks to enhance Europe’s assertiveness and military capabilities and — as one of the key pillars stipulates — aims to reinforce bi- and multilateral partnerships with, among others, Japan. This, in turn, provides room for stronger cooperation in the realms of cybersecurity, hybrid threats, defence technology innovation and maritime and space security.

“Japan is the EU’s closest strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific region and is a key ally for the implementation of the EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.”

EEAS, May 2022.

Parallels can also be drawn when it comes to their reactions to the Russo-Ukraine war. Japan and the EU are traditionally slow in responding to conflicts given that they are still developing their geopolitical character. However, they reacted unprecedentedly quickly after the announcement of Russia’s invasion. Japan’s swift and outspoken reaction was especially surprising giving its pragmatic engagement policy vis-à-vis Russia, as established under Prime Minister Abe. This policy attempted to put an end to the territorial dispute regarding the South Kuril islands which also explains Tokyo’s relative inaction after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In light of the conflict in Ukraine, Japan decided to distance itself from this policy and explicitly condemned Russia’s actions. In a matter of days, it joined the United States, Canada and the EU in imposing far-reaching sanctions on Russia. Between February and October 2022, Japan has made thirteen announcements of additional sanctions on Russia. It froze the yen reserves of the Russian Central Bank, discontinued exports of more than thirty products —  including strategic goods like semiconductors and spare parts — and even withdrew the MFN (most favoured nation) status of Russia. Tokyo also published a list of 622 Russian individuals, 53 entities and 11 Russian banks targeted by Japanese sanctions. Both the EU and Japan additionally decided to provide Ukraine with significant financial aid, humanitarian assistance and economic relief — resulting in €1.87 billion from the EU and US$500 million from Japan.

The EU’s extensive mobilization of military aid, specifically lethal weapons, to Ukraine through its Peace Facility proved that Brussels and its individual members can act beyond rhetoric, which resonated with Tokyo. For the first time in its modern history, Japan has committed itself to sending non-lethal military equipment to a country at war. Within a week since Ukraine’s request for military equipment, Japan — in an unprecedented move — had adapted its military exports guidelines to circumvent the restrictive laws that would have thwarted its attempts to aid Ukraine. In early March, a Boeing KC-767 tanker aircraft filled with 6900 helmets, 40 reconnaissance SUAVs (small unmanned aerial vehicles) and 1900 bulletproof vests to Ukraine. This signifies Japan’s normalization regarding foreign and security policy and could foster opportunities for increasing joint efforts with Europe, not just in Ukraine or the Pacific, but perhaps also in other areas of common geostrategic interest.

A United Front Against Authoritarianism

Source: EP Think Tank.

All these developments have shown that there is indeed fertile ground for deepening ties between Japan and the EU as they now possess increased capacities, tools and, above all, a willingness to address international conflicts and to protect the rules-based international order. Not only is Ukraine’s sovereignty at stake, but democratic governance and democracies worldwide are under pressure by the revisionist and expansionist tendencies of autocratic countries.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has become a symbol of a wider conflict, a global struggle between democracy and autocracy, between freedom and oppression.

Perry World House, November 2022.

Domestic polarization is further fuelled by foreign interference and disinformation campaigns. China is reported to have established more than one-hundred so-called “overseas police stations,” mainly in Europe, by abusing international and bilateral security arrangements. These establishments monitor and harass Chinese citizens who live in exile and reportedly try to influence and undermine local political developments. Recently, it also came to light that Qatar bribed several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to influence decision-making, culminating in the arrest of multiple MEPs, including Vice-President Eva Kaili. Incidents like this reveal that authoritarian regimes try to erode democracies from within, making it more pertinent than ever that democracies across the globe present a united front against authoritarianism.

Japan and the EU could be frontrunners in this regard as they represent some of the strongest and most powerful democracies in the world with far-reaching economic leverage. Moreover, the EU is the largest economy and trading bloc in the world and Japan is the world’s third-largest economy by nominal GDP. Now that their strategic profile is also rising, they will increasingly be considered major regional and global powers and can utilize this momentum to defend other democracies across the world. Perhaps the experience of the war in Ukraine can prepare the EU, and especially Japan, to act if an invasion against Taiwan occurs.

In the meantime, policy revisions should be undertaken in areas where capabilities are still underdeveloped, either through scaling-up capacities or by possibly expanding the EU-Japanese bloc to include other like-minded partners to fill strategic gaps. Regardless, the effects of the ongoing war are increasingly materializing and it is still unknown what the final state of play will be. In this context, it is important to remain cautious and to not disregard domestic needs. Otherwise, vulnerabilities will become visible and autocratic regimes have proven not to shy away from exploiting this, which will only further harm the state of democracy in the world.

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(Analysis) The Return of …

by Fiona De Cuyper time to read: 9 min