• Timothée Albessard

The EU-Japan partnership: blooming hope for the world liberal order?

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is not your typical saying in international relations, a truism that the diplomatic history of Japan and the European Union (EU) exemplifies well. In the wake of the Second World War, Japan’s long-standing alliance with the United States has somehow led the land of the Rising Sun to overlook possible ties with the European Economic Community (EEC), whose focus was primarily strategic positioning between the US and the USSR, rather than projection in North-East Asia. It is only at the end of the Cold War, with the Hague Joint Declaration in July 1991, that Japan and the budding EU started strengthening their slender bond. Yet according to various observers, such progress was nothing but cooperation for the sake of cooperation: as political scientist Tsuruoka Michito wrote as recently as 2015, “the Japan-Europe relationship still faces mutual indifference and the lack of a strong sense of purpose.”[1]

However, several developments have qualified these criticisms. Indeed, the Japanese society was impressed by and thankful for European involvement through immediate financial and material support after the dramatic Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, in March 2011. This token of solidarity shed new light upon the civilian power of the EU for Tokyo, laying the ground for future and more thorough cooperation. Amid a highly tense security situation in East Asia, as well as dwindling confidence in the (now unpredictable) historical American ally, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has become an active proponent of greater ties with the EU —a feeling that is mutual in Brussels. This article aims to analyse the current state of relations between the EU and Japan, in the light of such major geopolitical changes as a rising China, and an ambiguous American power.

Let us first take a look at the main drivers for this increased though belated cooperation. There is firstly the evolution of relations with the United States. It is no secret to anyone that since the 2016 election, President Trump has clearly evinced his willingness to disengage the US from many commitments and operations. The withdrawals from the Paris Agreement or the JCPOA[2], for instance, are blatant evidence that the US no longer abides by the traditional principle of international relations “Pacta sunt servanda” (“Agreements must be kept”). Hence an acute sense of unreliability now reaching US partners, added to that of unpredictability. Historical ties with the US have ceased to serve as valuable guarantees, as fiery trade disputes with the EU have shown recently. However, this novel instability does not imply that the US has decided to back out of the East-Asian sphere of influence. It still remains Japan’s second largest trading partner and an indispensable security provider. Yet China’s relentless rise has proven to be a gamechanger, as international relations theorist John Ikenberry put it in “Between the Eagle and the Dragon”[3]. According to him, the geopolitical order in East Asia is characterized by a “dual hierarchy”: the security hierarchy of the US, and the economic hierarchy of China. These two forms of influence constitute the main channels by which both powers compete in the region, trying to gain other states’ loyalties (Japan, South Korea, Australia…). The American and Chinese quest for hegemony endows these “middle states” with unsuspected power: that of shifting the regional order through the alliances they choose to strike. Competition between the US and China creates frictions, leaving some voids that enable middle states to widen their relations with other actors, as long as it does not weaken this unsteady balance. According to Mr Ikenberry, this is the regional frame in which cooperation between the EU and Japan takes place. Confronted with a transitioning American power and increasing Chinese clout, Japan tries to strike new alliances to fill the relative void left by changing American politics.

Another major reason for this partnership lies in security stakes that bind both actors. Indeed, it seems that Japan and the EU can complement each other in this particular matter. It would be highly unrealistic to believe that the EU could replace the US as a security guarantee for Japan (all the more as it does not have a unified army at its disposal). However, Japan and the EU have identified common security interests in what the European Parliament calls “hybrid threats issues” [4]. This terminology refers to Russian and Chinese unconventional strategies, whether it be Beijing’s growing maritime influence (using armed fishermen to establish control over islands in East and South China Seas, for instance) or Moscow’s meddling in internal politics of EU Member States (notably with the use of cyber warfare). Both the EU and Japan suffer from these new forms of aggressive expansion, hence the possibility of uniting their strengths. As a matter of fact, their positions seem to complement themselves in this field. While Tokyo is currently engaging “softly” with Russia (in order to solve the seventy-year-old dispute over the ownership of the Kuril Islands, northeast from Hokkaido), the EU has adopted a much tougher stance after the annexation of Crimea in February 2014; and Japan is tough on China while the EU employs a softer approach. These parallel situations bring the EU and Japan together insofar as they help mitigating one another; we shall see that they have played a major part in the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement between both parties.

Yet the foremost reason governing this rapprochement is their common perception as like-minded proponents of the international liberal order. The protectionist turn officialised by Donald Trump and exemplified by his trade wars with China or the EU have led Tokyo and Brussels to reassert themselves as advocates of the liberal trade order put forward by the World Trade Organization (WTO). Their core values include low tariffs and freedom of navigation (which is a key element in the Indo-Pacific for both parties). Japan and the EU lay heavy emphasis on this point inasmuch as they brand themselves as influential civilian powers, basing their influence on soft rather than hard power. As Joseph Nye famously defined it, soft power is “the power of attractive ideas or the ability to set the political agenda and determine the framework of debate in a way that shapes others’ preferences.”[5] Let us not misread it as a mere cultural or weapon-less influence; it is more of a hegemony in the way Gramsci understood it, namely the ability to implicitly frame collective actions thanks to a dominant set of representations. This is precisely the kind of influence that Japan admires the EU for, thanks to its normative power. Their partnership is therefore based on the promotion of a set of common values, ranging from democracy and human rights to high-quality labour standards and market economy. Although such statements might seem naive or trite at first sight, they clearly indicate which rank this partnership aims at: nothing less than the depiction of the EU and Japan as the “last samurais” of the post-1991 liberal order, in the midst of an unpredictable American ally and rising authoritarianisms.

All these factors have led to a comprehensive, threefold partnership, encompassing the fields mentioned above. The most striking part of the partnership is surely the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that came into force on February 1st, 2019. It is regarded as one of the largest free-trade agreements, covering more than a quarter of world economy. Its goal is to substantially remove tariff barriers (97% of Japanese tariffs on imported EU goods, 99% of European tariffs on imported Japanese goods) so as to increase trade between both parties by €36 billion. If we delve into the agreement[6], some winners stand out. European agriculture benefits from major tariff reductions on many cheeses (from 29.8% to 0%) and wines (from 15% to 0%). The acknowledgement of more than 200 European Geographical Indications (Roquefort, Parmigiano Reggiano, Champagne…) is no small feat. As for Japan, EU customs duties on automobiles and automotive parts will be reduced from 10 to 0% over the following 8 years. Such measures aim at actually creating a 600-million-people market, working as a bulwark against growing protectionism. This deal comes in handy for both parties. Japan is still shaken by the American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) in January 2017, which undermined its credibility; and the EU has had to walk on eggshells since the massive public outcry caused by the signing of the controversial Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada in October 2016. After these relative setbacks, the EPA was also a way of proving that Japan and the EU are able to expand free-trade and mutual reach beyond their traditional spheres of influence.

The EPA is bolstered by another important partnership, which aims at responding to the challenges raised by hybrid threats. This is why Japan and the EU signed a Data Movement Agreement in January 2019, creating a vast area of safe data flows. It is part and parcel of both parties’ commitment to protect personal data according to their high-quality standards. This agreement aligns Japanese and European regulations (in the wake of the European General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR), so as to facilitate trade and exchanges as well as mutually gear up against potential cyber-threats coming from Russia or China. It can be regarded as a 2.0 extension of the Schengen Area, allowing data to be freely moved between each party. Indeed, this partnership mainly stems from the idea that no trade deal can be actually comprehensive without addressing safe data issues. The Data Agreement therefore represents a model for future trade deals, insofar as it takes into account the changing nature of trade and flows.

What the Data Agreement also brings about is the security turn in the threefold partnership between the EU and Japan. We have already seen that it mostly answers to geopolitical preoccupations, which is why it is not merely focused on economy. Hence its third constituent: the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), which was signed in July 2018. We should firstly note that it is not the first time that Japan and the EU have cooperated in security matters. For instance, in 2014, the European Naval Force and the Japanese Self-Defence Forces (SDF) led joint counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa, so as to ensure safe maritime navigation. However, what makes the SPA a valuable milestone is the fact that it is legally binding: it provides a formal basis to these bilateral relations, including a joint committee devoted to implementing the agreement and settling disputes. This move does not come out of the blue in both parties’ security preoccupations. They are highly reliant on American security, which, as we have already pointed out, has become quite uncertain. The EU and Japan clearly take heed of this unreliability, inasmuch as they have been striving to enlarge their strategic autonomy for the past four years. In the eyes of the Japanese government, the EU is a trustworthy partner, especially when it comes to the North Korean issue. The Trump Administration has not quite convinced Mr Abe of its unwavering determination to crack down on Kim Jong-un’s bellicose behaviour, whereas the EU has firmly stated its desire to see all aggressive nuclear programs come to an end.[7] As for the EU, the notion that East Asia represents a direct strategic interest (especially regarding maritime trade) has gained momentum amongst Member States, which deem Japan the most appropriate partner in the region due to their economic ties and shared values. This is the reason why the SPA is a major piece of this threefold partnership: it formalizes acute cooperation in such fields as environmental protection and cyber-threats, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction… and explicitly illustrates both parties’ quest for more strategic autonomy, amid a growingly unstable world.

However promising this partnership might seem, a bit of critical analysis is in order. Although these agreements are very recent, there is available data of their effects, especially regarding the EPA. According to the European Commission[8], “in the first ten months following the implementation of the agreement, EU exports to Japan went up by 6.6% compared to the same period the year before. This outperforms the growth in the past three years, which averaged 4.7%. Japanese exports to Europe grew by 6.3% in the same period.” The main winners are beverages exports, with wine calling the tune, and electrical machinery exports. The agreement thus seems to start rather well; yet we need to see the bigger picture. Japan is still not a frontrunner among EU trade partners, only ranking 7th in 2019 with a 3% share in total EU trade (way below Turkey, ranking 6th with 3.4%, or the US, ranking 1st with 15.2%)[9]. We should of course not forget that it is nothing but a newborn agreement; yet these relatively low figures do not strike us as particularly convincing —all the more as this agreement is much touted as a stepping stone of the future liberal trade order. Japan and the EU take pride in being the architects of the world’s largest free-trade agreement, accounting for about a quarter of the world’s GDP[10]; let us then hope that time will prove them right, beyond all this optimistic rhetoric.

We should also exert caution regarding the SPA and the “hard” dimension of this partnership: credibility is likely to be the main challenge. Indeed, both parties suffer from major military restrictions. According to the well-known article 9 of its constitution, “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.”[11] Although a reinterpretation of the article occurred in 2014 (allowing the Self-Defence Forces to support allies, should war be declared upon them), the Japanese cannot possibly have an army, which has led them to fully rely on the US since 1945. This is why Japan would like the EU to provide such support. Yet apart from reluctant reactions to the idea of a European army, the main obstacle is the EU’s doctrine regarding interventionism in East Asia, called “principled neutrality”[12]. It mostly refers to the East China Sea: the EU refuses to take position on sovereignty issues (e.g. ongoing disputes between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands), and will do nothing but advocate crisis management tools, laying the emphasis on international law (above all the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS). Although Japan would want the EU to clearly take sides, this strategy is the core of European international credibility, insofar as it stands out as an official proponent of crisis management and international law. The SPA will only be effective if the EU and Japan manage to find a common ground that hinges on the EU’s normative power, since military presence is irrelevant, facing American and Chinese forces in the region.

Last but not least, the remaining thorn of the bush is, as a matter of fact, the very basis of this partnership: the issue of values. Both parties present themselves as like-minded advocates of the liberal order, yet seminal disagreements still linger that hamper further rapprochements. Perceptions and representations, whether they be those of the leaders or the people, remain ambiguous. Firstly, as the recent Carlos Ghosn case underlined, Japan is widely regarded in the EU as a coercive, punitive society, with high conviction rates and long police custodies[13]. Death penalty has proven to be a very contentious point during the negotiations of the EPA. It was supposed to come with an “essential elements clause”, allowing unilateral suspension of the agreement should a partner violate human rights[14]. “The European Union is strongly opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances, and fighting it is a foremost priority of its external human rights policy.”[15] Such a clear position unsurprisingly clashed with Japan’s defence of its own capital punishment system, which led Tokyo to resist the inclusion of this clause in the agreement —inevitably leaving European negotiators and leaders with a bitter aftertaste. The feeling is mutual, though, when it comes to another topic. Due to its tragic history, Japan is a long-standing spearhead of the abolition of all nuclear weapons. In that matter, the EU is divided between Member States; let us just say that France’s unfaltering attachment to its nuclear policy makes it very difficult to even consider backing a nuclear weapons-free world. These examples illustrate how ambiguous the two parties’ like-mindedness is, since they are at odds regarding some core values.

There lies, perhaps, the greatest litmus test to this promising partnership. It is still too early to judge accurately the economic and strategic consequences of these various agreements, which require time to bear fruit. But values are the seeds and foundations of this partnership. The EU and Japan have regularly stated their desire to implement a norm-making diplomacy, based on these shared values and a growing popular demand of ethical policies on a worldwide scale. If they want their cooperation to endure in the midst of an increasingly illiberal world, they must succeed in actually becoming the flag-bearers of democracy and human rights; and this challenge begins within their own boundaries.


[1]TSURUOKA, Michito, “Japan-Europe Relations: Toward a Full Political and Security Partnership”, in TATSUMI, Yuki, Japan’s Global Diplomacy: Views from the Next Generation, Stimson Center, 2015, p. 43-53 (https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep10937.9?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents).

[2] Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program that was signed in July 2015 by Iran, the EU and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

[3] IKENBERRY, John, “Between the Eagle and the Dragon: America, China, and Middle State Strategies in East Asia”, Political Science Quarterly, October 2015, vol. XX, No. 20, p. 9-43.


[4] LEGRAND, Jérôme, “EU-Japan cooperation on global and regional security – a litmus test for the EU’s role as a global player?”, European Parliament, Policy Department for External Relations, June 2018.


[5] NYE, Joseph, “Soft Power”, Foreign Policy, Autumn 1990, No. 80, p. 153-171.


[6] EPA: https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000382106.pdf

[7] D’AMBROGIO, Enrico, “The EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) – A framework to promote shared values”, European Parliament, EPRS, January 2019.


[8] “First year of EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement shows growth in EU exports”, European Commission, 31 January 2020 (https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/press/index.cfm?id=2107).

[9] VERBUGT, Paul, “Client and Supplier Countries of the EU27 in Merchandise Trade”, European Commission, Directorate General for Trade, 18 March 2020.


[10] EPA poster (https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2020/january/tradoc_158609.pdf)

[11] Japanese Constitution


[12] DUCHÂTEL, Mathieu, HUIJSKENS, Fleur, “The European Union’s Principled Neutrality on the East China Sea”, SIPRI, February 2015.


[13] « Carlos Ghosn dans les méandres du système judiciaire japonais », Capital, 09/01/2019


[14] D’AMBROGIO, Enrico, “The EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) – A framework to promote shared values”, European Parliament, EPRS, January 2019.


[15] ZAMFIR, Ionel, “The death penalty and the EU’s fight against it”, European Parliament, EPRS, February 2019.



D’AMBROGIO, Enrico, “The EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) – A framework to promote shared values”, European Parliament, EPRS, January 2019.