• Antonio Meleca

EU-Japan Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure : its influence?


Vowing to “cooperate based on sustainability as a shared value, quality infrastructure and their belief in the benefits of a level playing field,”[1] the goal of the pre-Covid cooperation agreement is to coordinate people-to-people exchanges, energy, transport, and digital projects.More generally, the two sides are committed to building a bridge between Europe and Asia. This partnership is a logical result from the proposals based on values that both parties have presented in the past in contrast to China's BRI, such as Japan’s efforts for a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific"[2] (FOIP) and the "Connecting Europe and Asia - European Building Blocks for an EU Strategy.”[3]

In a nutshell, Tokyo and Brussels haveset for themselves the same goal that Xi Jinping's BRI, the mammoth infrastructure plan with which China “aims to promote connectivity in the fields of trade, infrastructure and currency through multilayered collaboration among relevant countries and international organisations,”[4] intends to complete. It is for this reason that more than one voice has hypothesized that the Brussels-Tokyo agreement may be a clear attempt to hinder Beijing’s attempts in the field, eager to win consensus among the most important European and Indo-pacificgovernments. Afterall, the EU has labeled China as a “systemic rival.” This rivalry also extends to the field of connectivity and infrastructure, present not only far from Europe, but also within, exemplified by the Port of Piraeus’s buyout by the Chinese.[5]

Is it an agreement to stem China, or simply an iron pact to try to revive their respective economies? Will this agreement materialize or remain wishful thinking? This will be revealed within the next few years, when it will become possible to analyze the effects of the infrastructure agreement signed by the European Union and Japan.

The Agreement: The four dimensions of connectivity

Transport, digital, energy and people-to-people exchanges. These are the sectors at the heart of the agreement that formalizes Japan's involvement in the new EU-Asia "connectivity" plan.[6] With the agreement, the two players intend to favor the development of all dimensions related to Eurasian connectivity, both material and intangible, in compliance with economic and environmental sustainability.

Japan's accession to the European Connectivity Plan with Asia - which should be supported by a € 60 billion investment framework for external action - strengthens Europe’s projection towards the Asian continent. Europe and Japan, in fact, have committed themselves to an ambitious project that will require the participation of private individuals for its proper realization. For this reason, in the text of the ten-point agreement, ample space is given to the commitment that both parties will adopt to ensure a favorable environment for investments by companies, based on certain and non-discriminatory rules.

In digital matters, Europe and Japan aim to create an intangible infrastructure based on an open and secure cyberspace, capable of operating the "data free flow with trust" (DFFT).This trust is linked to the free flow of data, which G20 leaders spoke about in Osaka.[7] On transport matters, they intend to favour the interconnectivity of logistic corridors in a green and sustainable way, giving ample emphasis to the issue of environmental sustainability, in addition to that of safety.[8] Another topic, energy, was highlighted as an issue on which it will be necessary to continue to ensure cooperation in many respects: hydrogen and fuel cells, but also regulation of the electricity markets and the world market for liquefied natural gas (LNG). All these are technologies and regulations that, together with investments in energy infrastructures, should lead to the creation of a low-carbon energy system.[9]

As the ongoing semiconductor/chip shortage and the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrate, Japan and the EU must urgently find alternate supply chains as a matter of security and sovereignty, eventually sidestepping China. And more so for Japan, given that it imports more than 90%[10] of its total electricity, and that nuclear energy is no longer the traditional Japanese best-seller since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.[11]Finally, the two signing parties aim to expand international people-to-people exchanges between institutions in higher education and research sectors. This context has brought about the creation of the EU-Japan Joint Master Program.[12]

Influence on the international scene: a possible alternative model to the Chinese silk road?

Japan, among other things, had already proposed to the United States a sort of alternative to the BRI, namely the FOIP Strategy to unite the Pacific and the Indian oceans, and the two continents of Asia and Africa.[13] Tokyo's strategies, seen by some to contrast Beijing in the Indo-Pacific,are now becoming more robust thanks to the agreement signed with the European Union.

The EU-Japan connectivity partnership ushers in a new chapter of bilateral cooperation, strengthening the two countries' mutual commitment to a multilateral, rules-based international order. It provides an effective solution to the global connectivity challenge while also making a unique contribution in contrast to the BRI, due to its sustainability and level-playing field values. This isn't to suggest the relationship is being formed in opposition to China's initiative. Neither the EU nor Japan wish to antagonize China. However, not having similar means that Washington has at their disposal, they choose to put forward a very subtle dialectic, that of a “level playing field.” In fact, both Japan and the EU are willing to work with China on connectivity projects if they are sustainable and provide a level playing field for private sector involvement. Furthermore, let us not forget that EU member states have joined the BRI.

However, according to many, the agreement outlines the creation of a new Euro-Japanese axis, an alternative to the Chinese silk road initiative. In fact, in presenting the agreement, both the Japanese Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission focused their attention on aspects such as environmental or fiscal sustainability. Points on which, according to many commentators, China has often been lacking in its promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative. Furthermore, Japan and the EU have regularly stated their desire to implement a norm-making diplomacy, based on shared values and a growing popular demand of ethical policies on a worldwide scale.[14] The EU-Japan partnership is a value-based cooperation that allows both parties to enact these desires. Both want to promote a liberal world order built on values such as transparency, sustainability, democracy and human rights.[15] As a result, Tokyo and Brussels could potentially be a more equitable and stable alternative to the BRI. However, these values may push potential partners towards the Chinese silk road initiative, for its more lenient value orientations lower transparency standards.

The Tokyo-Brussels value-based cooperation has faced challenges. Japan’s capital punishment caused a bit of a stir during negotiations. And more recently, the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic unearthed more challenges. “Economic dependence on strategic products may hamper EU-Japan relations”[16] within the pandemic context. For example, Japan’s minister in charge of the COVID-19 response has accused the EU of “vaccine nationalism.” This occurred when word broke loose that the EU may block the export of vaccines produced in Europe to third countries until enough is provided to the European population.[17] This not only would pose a high moral challenge for the EU-Japan value-based cooperation, but also an economic one. Currently, Japan is putting all its efforts into its vaccination strategy in light of the summer Olympics.[18]

At the moment, it seems that the European Union will not be issuing an export ban on COVID-19 vaccines.[19] However, this does bring to light how the current global pandemic can bring exceptional challenges to the Tokyo-Brussels partnership.

Conclusion: Will the partnership materialize?

To realize the full potential of the EU-Japan relationship, it is necessary to move from a normative approach to a realistic and successful implementation. This will primarily include securing adequate funding through collaboration with the private sector and other main government actors. The effect of the EU-Japan partnership will, above all, be determined by the financial resources available.[20]

Surely, the number of projects introduced on the basis of the values that underpin the EU-Japan connectivity partnership would be critical in evaluating the initiative's ability to influence other actors at the normative stage, such as China.[21] To avoid having yet another ambitious project become a dead letter, I recommend that the EU should not forget the strategic importance this connectivity partnership can play. This partnership is even more relevant and important than ever during the global pandemic, within which reliance on Chinese supply chains and imports have underlined internal security and sovereignty shortcomings. I also suggest that the newly formed Japanese government continue in the footsteps of the former government in its views for what EU-Japan relations should and can be. Without allowing the short-term summer Olympics to completely cast a shadow over middle to long-term goals and opportunities.

However, within the COVID-19 global context, financial resources will most likely not reach the required sums necessary for this partnership to successfully materialize, and the project will probably take a few years longer. Will this partnership pass the test of time and blossom in a post-Covid world? The historical timing of this agreement may very much be its downfall.


- Free and Open Indo-Pacific (2019). Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan Official Website. https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000430632.pdf

- Gearoid Reidy (2021). "Japan Aims to Vaccinate most of country before Olympics, report says", Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-20/japan-aims-to-vaccinate-most-of-country-before-olympics-report

- Kai Schulze (2019). “EU-Japan connectivity aspirations”, East Asia Forum. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/12/20/eu-japan-connectivity-aspirations/

- Maaike Okano-Heijmans (2019). “Empowering the EU-Japan Connectivity Partnership”, East Asia Forum. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/11/04/empowering-the-eu-japan-connectivity-partnership/

- Marie Söderberg (2020). “Connectivity and infrastructure: can the EU-Japan partnership make a difference?”, Elcano Royal Institute. http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_en/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_in/zonas_in/asia-pacific/commentary-soderberg-connectivity-and-infrastructure-can-eu-japan-partnership-make-difference

- Mario Esteban & Ugo Armanini (2020). “The EU-Japan connectivity partnership: a sustainable initiative awaiting materialization”, Elcano Royal Institute. http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_en/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_in/zonas_in/ari12-2020-esteban-armanini-eu-japan-connectivity-partnership-sustainable-initiative-awaiting-materialisation

- Oscar Williams-Grut (2021). “DAVOS 2021: Japan and Korea attack EU's vaccine nationalism”, Yahoo Finance UK. https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/davos-2021-japan-korea-vaccine-nationalism-covid-19-coronavirus-eu-122117522.html

- The Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure between the European Union and Japan (2019). Brussels, 27/09/2019 - 09:50, UNIQUE ID: 190927_2 https://eeas.europa.eu/regions/africa/68018/partnership-sustainable-connectivity-and-quality-infrastructure-between-european-union-and_en

- Timothée Albessard (2020). “The EU-Japan partnership: blooming hope for the world liberal order?”, Institute for a Greater Europe. https://www.institutegreatereurope.com/single-post/2020/03/31/the-eu-japan-partnership-blooming-hope-for-the-world-liberal-order

- Xiaowen Hu (2021). “The Dilemma of Strategic Autonomy: Pandemic Challenges in the EU’s Interaction with China and Japan”, Chair of EU-Asia/Pacific Studies, Institute for a Greater Europe. https://www.institutegreatereurope.com/single-post/the-dilemma-of-strategic-autonomy-pandemic-challenges-in-the-eu-s-interaction-with-china-and-japan

- Zhao Minghao (2016). “The Belt and Road Initiative and its Implications for China-Europe Relations”, The International Spectator, DOI: 10.1080/03932729.2016.1235819

[1] Maaike Okano-Heijmans (2019). page 1, para. 1. [2] Further information available at: https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/page25e_000278.html [3] Further information available at: https://www.eesc.europa.eu/en/our-work/opinions-information-reports/opinions/connecting-europe-and-asia-building-blocks-eu-strategy [4] Zhao Minghao (2016). page 1, para. 1. [5] Further information available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/greece-privatisation-port-idUSL8N1AR252 [6] The Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure (2019). page 1, art. 2. [7] The Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure (2019). page 2, art. 6. [8] The Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure (2019). page 2, art. 7. [9] The Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure (2019). page 2-3, art. 8. [10] Further information available at: https://www.fepc.or.jp/english/energy_electricity/supply_situation/ [11] Further information available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56252695 [12] The Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure (2019). page 3, art. 9. [13] Free and Open Indo-Pacific (2019). [14] Timothée Albessard (2020). page 4, para. 4. [15] Marie Söderberg (2020). page 2, para. 6. [16] Xiaowen Hu (2021). page 2, para. 2. Further information available at: https://www.institutegreatereurope.com/single-post/the-dilemma-of-strategic-autonomy-pandemic-challenges-in-the-eu-s-interaction-with-china-and-japan [17] Oscar Williams-Great (2021). page 1, para. 3. [18] Gearoid Reidy (2021). [19] EU Statement at the General Council of 2 March 2021 on the “Call to Prevent Export Restrictions on Covid-19 Vaccine