Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just finished a 10-day, six-country tour of Europe. The trip’s primary focus was securing momentum toward an end state in Tokyo’s negotiations with the European Union on an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). The trade talks have been moving at a steady pace since the first round of negotiations in early 2013. A finalized Japan-EU EPA would facilitate trade between the world’s third-largest economy and the EU, a partnership that would be worth over $20 trillion dollars, or nearly one-third of global GDP. According to a report from the European Commission
, the EPA would result in approximately 1 percent additional growth in GDP for both sides.
Against this backdrop, and amid a murky future for the Trans-Pacific Partnership
(TPP) negotiations Japan is conducting with the U.S. and others, Abe has doubled down on free trade with Europe as both a complement to and a hedge against other trade negotiations. During his trip, Abe made stops in most of the key European markets and political centers, including Germany, the U.K., France, Spain, Portugal and Belgium. The trip was meant to bridge the gaps between Tokyo and Brussels on the pending trade pact as well as cater to Japan’s bilateral relationships with Europe’s key states. In a joint statement released during Abe’s visit to Brussels, both sides called for an early conclusion to the EPA negotiations and labeled the pact
as playing a “vital role . . . by addressing issues related to market access for goods, services and investment, procurement, including railways, and non-tariff measures.”
Abe has set a goal of finalizing the trade deal within a year and is reliant on both the EU deal and the TPP as drivers for his economic reform package, which has been critiqued as lacking teeth on structural reforms. Currently, the EU represents about 10 percent of Japan’s total trade
, with Japan’s largest bilateral partners being Germany, France, the U.K. and the Netherlands. But Japan’s trade with Europe has been declining in recent years, and there is hope that the EPA will stem this tide. While both sides remain optimistic on a deal, there are still significant hurdles to overcome. Specifically, both sides have complained about market access in the agricultural and automotive sectors. A finalized trade pact will have to address these concerns and also look at reducing tariffs and non-tariff barriers to free trade in these politically sensitive sectors.
Aside from issues of free trade, Abe’s trip also centered on the crisis in Ukraine as well as improving security cooperation with key partners in Europe. On the Ukraine issue, Japan and the EU threatened the possibility of further sanctions on Russia if it continued to destabilize Ukraine’s east. The crisis in Ukraine has been a policy nightmare for the Abe administration, which, up until Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, had been pouring diplomatic capital into its relationship with Moscow. After initial policy confusion, Tokyo has taken a firm stance against Russian actions in Ukraine as a precedent on illegal coercion to change territorial status quo. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea is being closely scrutinized in Japan as a potential example that might be repeated in East Asia, specifically with regard to its territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu.
Abe’s intent to link Russia’s moves in Ukraine with a warning on Chinese assertiveness in East Asia was demonstrated in his meetings with key European partners. After his visit to the U.K., Abe and British Prime Minister David Cameron released a joint statement
pledging a “mutual commitment to defend and protect the global commons, on the high seas, in cyberspace and in outer space, [and] to work together to support an international system based on the rule of law and international norms.” Moreover, the statement included an implicit warning regarding Beijing’s posture in the East and South China Seas: “Russia’s attempt to annex Crimea is a clear violation of international law and is a serious challenge to the rule of law around the world.” Despite this firm rhetoric, the Abe administration is doing a tap dance as it continues to recognize the benefits of closer ties with Russia, including greater cooperation on energy security and as a hedge against China’s growing regional assertiveness.
Abe also spent some of the trip discussing Japan’s evolving security posture and Tokyo’s desire to play a more active role as a “proactive contributor” to international peace and security. Much attention, including criticism, has been lavished upon the the Abe administration’s evolving security and defense reforms. After securing legislative support through a key upper house parliamentary election last summer, Abe embarked on long-planned reforms of Japan’s antiquated national security infrastructure. Chief among these changes are the creation of a centralized National Security Council, the passage of a new secrets bill, a first-ever National Security Strategy (NSS), revised National Defense Program Guidelines, a relaxation on arms exports and a push to reinterpret Japan’s self-imposed moratorium on its constitutional right to collective self-defense.
Japan’s security reforms were welcomed by most of its European partners, especially the U.K., which agreed to start negotiations
on an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement with Tokyo. The U.K. and Japan also agreed to a regular cybersecurity dialogue. Japan also agreed to enhance high-level security consultations
with Germany. But perhaps most significant was a joint declaration
, the first ever, between Japan and NATO, which provides a framework for future security cooperation between Tokyo and the alliance. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen heralded the cooperation, noting: “While NATO has no ambition to take on a permanent role in Asia, we see very clearly the advantage of working with like-minded partners like Japan.”
The length and diversity, both geographically and thematically, of Abe’s trip demonstrate that Japan is looking to transcend its current engagement with Europe, which was mainly focused on trade and tourism. Indeed, Tokyo is looking to forge a true strategic partnership with Europe based on both economic and security pillars, as a way to shore up its position in its own region and the world.
J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on Japan for the Pacific Forum CSIS.