A Geopolitical EU in Northeast Asia

The EU and Japan: towards a truly ‘strategic’ partnership

November 23, 2023

► The EU and Japan, traditionally focused on shared values and trade, now exhibit unprecedented strategic alignment due to shifting global security dynamics, China’s assertiveness, and shared security concerns through events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

► The 2019 Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) broadened cooperation into trade, technology, environment, and security, creating a new phase in the relationship.

► Economic security cooperation, especially in supply chain resilience, has intensified. Beyond economics, the collaboration includes maritime security, cybersecurity, arms control, and responses to COVID-19’s economic impact. 


The EU and Japan have never been closer. Despite referring to each other as ‘strategic partners’ since the early 2000s, the relationship between the EU and Japan has been broadly defined in terms of shared values, such as human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, with cooperation focusing almost exclusively on trade and economic affairs. Developments of the past decade, driven chiefly by China’s expanding strategic clout, the in-ward shift in the US foreign policy, the Russia-China rapprochement, as well as the all-encompassing Sino-American strategic competition, have led to an unprecedented level of strategic convergence between Brussels and Tokyo. The EU- Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), in force since 2019, provides an overarching political framework and a comprehensive roadmap for enhancing cooperation across a broad range of areas, ranging from trade, technology, environment, connectivity, energy, or security and defense matters. While some areas have already recorded concrete progress, much still needs to be accomplished to fulfill the terms of a truly ‘strategic’ partnership.


Drivers of convergence

The decision to step up political-security cooperation, recorded since the mid-2010s, is a result of both partners’ shifting foreign policy outlooks against the increasingly volatile global security environment. The EU has become more aware of East Asia’s security challenges and their impact on its own stability and prosperity, subsequently boosting its determination to engage more proactively in the region. The publication of the EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in 2021 has met with a warm welcome in Japan, seen as a tangible sign of the Union’s willingness to step up its role in the region. For its part, Japan has been trying to diversify its security guarantees by stepping up cooperation with global partners beyond its traditional alliance with the United States since the premiership of Abe Shinzo. The 2022 National Security Strategy reiterates the importance of working with Europe, both bilaterally and within multilateral settings.


The deteriorating international security environment is at the core of the new-found strategic convergence between Tokyo and Brussels. China’s military build-up, assertiveness, growing global security footprint, concerns over the reliability of the US security guarantees, and the intensifying US–China strategic competition have been lasting common concerns urging for greater cooperation.  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the preceding rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow have further demonstrated the interconnectedness between the European and the Asian security theatres, aligning Brussels’ and Tokyo’s threat perceptions and underscoring the need to tighten ranks with other like-minded liberal democracies in defense of the global rules-based order.


Besides sharing the views on traditional security matters, the two partners have always been particularly active in addressing and promoting solutions to the so-called ‘non-traditional’, or ‘human’ security challenges. Health, energy, food, climate, information, environmental, and economic security issues have all gained importance in recent years in the Indo-Pacific region and globally. The need to address these challenges in a sustainable, rules-based, cooperative manner has been a common trademark of the EU and Japan, and an important driver to enhancing bilateral cooperation, as well as coordination within existing multilateral settings.


The EU – Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement

Against this background, the conclusion of the EU – Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) in 2018 marks a new phase in the relationship. The SPA provides an overarching political framework for addressing common challenges, subsequently followed by the EU – Japan Partnership for Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure (2019), the EU-Japan Green Partnership (2021), and the EU – Japan Digital Partnership (2022), which guide cooperation on more specific issue-areas. To date, most efforts have concentrated on issues related to economic security, maritime security, cybersecurity, sustainable connectivity, energy transition, and digital transformation, as well as greater coordination within relevant multilateral international frameworks such as the G7.


Economic security has emerged as the most promising area for cooperation between the two trading powers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increasing weaponization of economic linkages has accentuated the need to invest in supply chain security and resilience, effective anti-coercion mechanisms, as well as protection of sensitive technology and critical infrastructure for the sake of maintaining their economic and technological competitiveness and sovereignty. Cooperation on economic security issues has been extensively discussed as part of the EPA and the Digital Partnership. In July 2023, the EU and Japan agreed to enhance cooperation on supply chains of semiconductors, joining forces in research and development, early warning, and skills advancement, as well as on raw materials supply chains, focusing especially on innovation, recycling, and circularity frameworks. 


Another lasting common area of interest has been maritime security. Sustaining a free, safe, and stable maritime environment has been a vital challenge for both Japan and the EU, with cooperation taking on a more concrete, practical form in recent years. Since 2019, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces (JMSDF) and the EU’s antipiracy mission Atalanta held several joint exercises in the Western Indian Ocean, culminating in the signature of an Administrative Arrangement in March 2023. The increased naval presence of various individual EU member states in the Indo-Pacific since 2021, with recent deployments by notably France, but also Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, significantly contributed to raising awareness about Europe’s interest in the region, increasing interoperability and trust between Japan and the EU as a whole.


Similarly, cybersecurity has been a lasting common area of focus, with regular Cyber Dialogues taking place since 2014. In 2018, Japan and the EU agreed to a mutual recognition of their respective data protection systems by the reciprocal adequacy agreement creating the largest digital data free trade zone in the world. Under the Digital Partnership framework, more cooperation is foreseen notably in the domain of AI, IoT, quantum computing, and digital infrastructure. Among other priority areas for enhanced bilateral security cooperation have been arms control and non-proliferation of nuclear, chemical, biological, and radioactive (CBRN) weapons. Although for a long time mostly rhetoric, the issue of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation has raised in importance in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, making it among the top priorities at the G7 Hiroshima Summit in July 2023.


The road ahead?

To be sure, both the EU and Japan face pressing security challenges in their respective neighbourhoods, be it Ukraine and the Middle East for Europe, or the North Korean threat to Japan, which constitute their immediate priorities. However, their increasingly aligned global strategic outlooks have given impetus to bolstering political and security dialogue, which has been an important missing link in the bilateral partnership. The establishment of an annual EU – Japan Strategic Dialogue at the ministerial level, announced at the 2023 bilateral summit, signals the determination of both parties to continue the discussions at the highest levels. Translating this unique political momentum into more concrete practical initiatives is, however, the most crucial part.


Given their limited traditional security toolbox, the United States continues to be the main partner for both Brussels and Tokyo in terms of security and defense, which also constitutes an important common denominator. However, given the complexity and interconnectedness of today’s security challenges, there is much both can do by leveraging their combined economic weight, diplomatic network, technological prowess, and strong norm-setting backgrounds. In line with the many areas outlined in the agreed political frameworks, the EU and Japan can take the lead in upholding and promoting multilateral cooperation on global governance issues, including in trade and economic security, digital transformation, energy transition, and environmental standards, which tend to be sidelined in the context of the intensifying great power competition. Focusing on the governance of the ‘next frontiers’ of global commons, such as the outer space, the information space, or the deep sea, as well as proactively engaging with the so-called ‘Global South’ countries should be the next targets for the two like-minded partners.