Strategic Europe continues its Capitals Series exploring how EU foreign policy is viewed by major non-European countries. We have asked each of our contributors to give a frank assessment of their country’s relations with the EU and rank five key issues in order of their importance in those relations. This week, the spotlight is on Japan.
Japan and the EU regard each other as partners that share common values such as freedom, human rights, and democracy. In the international community, Tokyo and Brussels often act with a concerted effort to protect these values. For example, after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Japan and the EU, as well as the United States, jointly condemned this act and imposed economic sanctions on Russia. With regard to North Korea, almost every year Japan and the EU propose a joint resolution to the UN in which they denounce the country’s widespread human rights violations and demand greater accountability of those responsible.
To strengthen these kinds of relations, Japan and the EU decided at their summit in 2011 to conclude a binding Strategic Partnership Agreement on matters such as disarmament, climate change, and education. Since 2013, the two sides have been negotiating toward this accord, which is expected to become the legal basis of future EU-Japanese relations for the purposes of peace, stability, and prosperity.
In the economic field, the EU market, which represents over 500 million people and some 24 percent of the world’s GDP, is very appealing to Japan. The EU accounted for 12.4 percent of Japan’s imports and 11.4 percent of its exports in 2016. In light of this relationship, Brussels and Tokyo have been making progress toward an Economic Partnership Agreement. This deal is a top priority for both sides, and they aim to conclude it by the end of 2017.
The main sticking point is the reduction of tariffs on agricultural products and automobiles. Japan is demanding the elimination of tariffs on industrial products with high rates, for example 10 percent for passenger cars and 14 percent for electronic equipment. Meanwhile, the EU is seeking to lower tariffs on processed foods such as ham and cheese. The two sides have not yet found a point of compromise. But now that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has taken on a protectionist policy, it is necessary for both Japan and the EU to demonstrate to the world that they will continue to promote free trade.
The relationship between Japan and the EU is overshadowed by the presence of China. China has a strong historical connection to Japan and is its biggest trading partner. However, Beijing is developing military bases by constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea, a move that harms the peace and stability of the region. In recent years, Chinese vessels have frequently invaded Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, and patrol ships of the Japan Coast Guard have demanded that they leave. This kind of tension between Japan and China continues.
Japan expects the EU to adopt a tough stance toward Beijing and publicly criticize China for its acts that disturb the region’s stability and peace. Yet this does not seem to be happening. China is the EU’s second-largest trading partner after the United States and can be said to be more important for the EU than Japan is. In addition, China is pursuing an economic Belt and Road Initiative to connect China and Europe and in January 2015 launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. While Japan decided not to participate in the bank, the UK expressed its wish to join at the earliest opportunity, and most EU member states ultimately did so too.
Moreover, the EU is actively attracting investments from financial institutions affiliated with the Chinese government for the European Commission’s Investment Plan for Europe (also called the Juncker Plan, after the commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker). To Japan, the EU could seem to be turning a blind eye to various problems within and outside China and trying only to deepen its economic relationship with Beijing, which is somewhat irritating for Tokyo.
Nevertheless, for both Japan and the EU, China remains an important partner in the international community. A worsening of the relationship with China will only destabilize that community and benefit no one. Japan and the EU need to cooperate with China in areas where they can, and they must be strict with regard with to actions that contradict their shared values. In January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a lecture emphasizing the “global economy.” But it is uncertain what was meant by “global economy” and whether it is the same thing as the free trade that the EU and Japan have in mind.
Farther afield, from the Trump administration to Britain’s decision to withdraw from the EU, the notion of “my country first” is expanding around the world. Meanwhile, terrorism poses a risk to almost every country, and the world is becoming more and more unpredictable. This “my country first” worldview will ultimately lead to divisions between nations. The issues on which Japan and the EU can cooperate, such as measures to reduce climate change and maintain peace, are manifold. Especially at times like these, cooperation between Japan and the EU, which share common values, is increasingly important.
Michiko Yoshida is the Brussels bureau chief of the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily.