Japan and Europe as Strategic Partners: Opportunities & Challenges

By Michito Tsuruoka —

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaking at the EU-Japan Summit in July 2014. Source: Herman Van Rompuy’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Japan and Europe are natural partners, though this may not be an obvious proposition to many observers. Yet, given the essential values that Japan and Europe share — such as democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights, and market economies, as well as the fact that both are long-standing U.S. allies — it is natural to talk about the Japan-Europe partnership. Though Japan and Europe have shared common values and interests since the start of the Cold War, the strategic significance of the partnership appears to have increased considerably in recent years. This is spurred in part by the rise of illiberal or authoritarian challengers to the liberal international order, and the arrival of President Donald Trump in the United States.

The idea of Japan-Europe political and security cooperation is not new. It dates back to the Cold War period when Japan and Western Europe were both part of the Western bloc, often called the free world, as part of the U.S.-led alliance network. In a sense, Japan and Western Europe were “a friend’s friend,” indirectly connected via the United States. Yet, from time to time, Tokyo made direct overtures to Europe in view of the communist threat. This was particularly true in the 1960s and again during the Euro-missile crisis regarding the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) negotiations in the 1980s. Japan feared that the negotiations could adversely impact its security since Tokyo wanted to avoid a situation in which Moscow would be allowed to relocate missiles from Europe to Asia. If only intermittently, the Cold War structure did provide opportunities for Japan and Western Europe to work with each other to address common security issues. For example, The G7 Summit in Williamsburg in 1983 adopted a communique stating that the “security of our countries is indivisible and must be approached on a global basis.” Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan played a vital role in making this possible.

Following the end of the Cold War, there was a degree of optimism that the role of military power was declining, opening the way for civilian powers like Europe and Japan to raise their profile in international relations. In addition, the Japanese economy was still booming at that time and Tokyo was eager to expand its engagement in the world. For example, Japan sought to increase its official development assistance (ODA) and participate in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations. It was in this context that Japan became involved in the reconstruction of the Balkans in the 1990s. Japan’s ODA played a substantial role there and the fact that Yasushi Akashi, a Japanese UN diplomat, served as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the former Yugoslavia was symbolic in this regard. More broadly, Japan also joined the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) as a founding member. In the meantime, the EU participated in the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), including by making financial contributions, to help solve the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the 1990s. Those reciprocal moves — Japan’s engagement in Europe and Europe’s engagement in Asia — constituted what was often called “cross-support.”

Yet, despite all the rhetoric about globalization and the notion that the EU and Japan were becoming global players commensurate with their economic prowess, in hindsight the world proved too disconnected, particularly as far as international security was concerned. Europe was able to focus on its own region, particularly on EU enlargement into central and eastern European countries. At the same time, Japan’s focus on Asia was evident. In a sense, they did not have to look beyond their respective regions. Therefore, despite the fact that various Japan-EU and Japan-NATO dialogue mechanisms were established after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, it is hardly surprising that they generally lacked substance and did not prosper. Japan and Europe generally lacked a sense of urgency about working together to address common political and security challenges. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 changed this situation, demonstrating that security threats and challenges had become truly global and that Europe and Japan could no longer be indifferent to what takes place in other regions of the world. Events in Afghanistan could directly affect daily life in distant hometowns. In other words, Europe and Japan have met between their respective home regions, including in the Arctic and Central Asia.

Three sets of policy recommendations emerge from the proceeding discussion. First, there needs to be a higher level of ambition in the Japan-Europe relationship. While a lot has already taken place and the Japan-EU, Japan-NATO, and individual bilateral partnerships have developed substantially, it is still not clear what Tokyo should expect from the overall Japan-Europe relationship (and vice versa). As a result, there remains a large number of people in Japan who dismiss cooperation with Europe as useless or a waste of resources because Europe does not seem to be prepared to help defend Japan militarily in a contingency. However, Tokyo does not expect Europe to fight a war in Asia in defense of Japan in the first place. Dismissing Europe in this way is, therefore, not constructive. Thus, Japanese perceptions on political and security cooperation with Europe depends in large part on expectations management.

Second, in light of Brexit, Tokyo’s urgent task is to find an alternative gateway to the EU. While the UK will remain an important partner for Japan in economic, political, and security terms, its influence in the EU will decline severely. The most obvious candidates for Japan’s new gateway are France and Germany. The fact that Tokyo has been strengthening political, security, and defense ties with France can be seen as important groundwork. In comparison, Germany is almost absent as a driver of Japan-Europe relations, despite the long history of relations between Japan and Germany. It is therefore a high priority for Tokyo to cultivate its relationship with Berlin, including in the political, security, and defense dimensions.

Third, for the purpose of advancing operational cooperation between Japanese and European forces — and preparing for more robust joint operations in the future — it is imperative to conduct more joint training and exercises to enhancing interoperability. As noted above, whenever and wherever JSDF troops are sent abroad, they will likely see European forces in the same theater. Even after the 2016 Peace and Security Legislation and a possible forthcoming amendment to the Japanese Constitution, the JSDF is not supposed to engage in combat missions abroad (outside the confines of Japan’s own territorial defense).

Japan’s strategic partnerships with Europe — be it the EU, NATO, or individual European countries — have developed substantially over the past decade. Joint military exercises, defense equipment cooperation, and the Economic Partnership Agreement  were not even conceived as realistic merely a decade ago. These advances have been made possible by Japan’s more active foreign and security policy under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the increasing connectivity between Europe and Asia, Europe’s desire to get more engaged in Asia, and the unpredictability caused by the arrival of the Trump administration. However, as this article has discussed, there remain difficult challenges that need to be overcome for the relationship to prosper. Ultimately, what Japan and Europe need to do is to re-define what they want to achieve through cooperation and what cost they are prepared to accept to gain the benefits of this important and growing set of relationships.

Dr. Michito Tsuruoka is an associate professor in the Faculty of Policy Management at Keio University. In 2018, Dr. Tsuruoka was a Visiting Scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Dr. Tsuruoka’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign policy.

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