Over 400 years after Europeans received exclusive trading rights in Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned the favor last week with a nine-day, six-nation tour of Europe. Trade was, as expected, high on Abe’s agenda, and European leaders in Berlin, London, Lisbon, Paris, and Brussels reciprocated by agreeing to pursue the conclusion of a Japan-EU Free Trade Agreement by 2015, just two years after the beginning of negotiations, write Sharon Stirling-Woolsey and Joshua W. Walker.
Such an agreement would boost business between Europe and the world’s fourth largest economy, which together account for close to 40 percent of global trade. But Abe’s visit was about more than trade deals. It was part of a broader effort to increase Japan’s profile as a responsible global actor.
As Japan emerges from decades of economic stagnation and political malaise, there is a renewed enthusiasm in Tokyo to look beyond its borders and its longstanding alliance with the United States by increasing partnerships with like-minded countries. Asian capitals increasingly view the crisis in Ukraine not as a European issue but as a global one. Russian actions have complicated Japan’s plans for improving relations with Moscow and, with it, hopes for resolving its own territorial dispute with Russia.
The Ukraine crisis has also provided a platform for Japan to highlight the common values it shares with other members of the G7. Although some of the Japanese government’s recent actions have provided China with fodder to paint Abe and his closest policy advisors as jingoists, Japan is ultimately different in its adherence to a rules-based system, democracy, human rights, open markets, freedom of navigation, and the rule of law. It is these fundamental differences with Russia and China that Abe has been hoping to highlight during his overseas visits. Indeed, the Abe government seems determined to show the world that Japan is not simply a recipient of U.S. security protection in the Pacific, but is in fact a major contributor to global peace and prosperity.
Japan and Europe share much in common as some of the world’s leading developed nations. This includes membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Chairing an OECD meeting in Paris, Abe made an argument for greater Japanese-European economic cooperation and geopolitical coordination on China and Russia. At the same time, Japan and Europe have often been economic and energy competitors, while their geographic distance often causes their leaders to see regional developments from vastly different perspectives. Even areas of agreement see important differences: the deepening of trade links will require Abe to open Japan’s automotive and agricultural sectors and implement real structural reform.
But Abe’s admirable efforts to court European partners and focus on commonalities rather than differences were on full display throughout his visit. Japan and Europe — as close allies of the United States facing an uncertain world and the demographic realities of aging populations — are natural allies whose time for closer partnership is long overdue. The joint statements released last week by Abe and European leaders highlight the many areas ripe for further cooperation such as climate change, cyberspace, crisis management, development policy, and global security issues. Enhancing Japanese-European cooperation also compliments bilateral U.S.-Japan and EU-U.S. relationships particularly in the realm of trade. Finalizing the EU-Japan FTA would have positive effects on the broader multilateral trade agenda, linking the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) — cornerstones of Washington’s foreign policy agenda in Asia and Europe respectively.
Although historical issues between Japan and its Asian neighbors will remain for decades to come, Japan can bolster its image as a contributor to peace and stability by mending bilateral relationships with its democratic neighbors such as South Korea, while continuing its efforts to enhance relationships with like-minded nations as displayed last week in Europe. Returning to the roots of Japan’s early modernization and trade with Europe is an important beginning, but much more will now be required to build upon the momentum of Abe’s European trip.
Sharon Stirling-Woolsey is a program officer and Joshua W. Walker is a transatlantic fellow with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series