In July 2018, Tokyo and Brussels did it. Japan and the European Union adopted their bilateral Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA). The SPA is aimed at further institutionalizing EU-Japan cooperation in regional and international politics and security. Based on the enthusiastic political rhetoric accompanying the agreement’s adoption, one could be tempted to conclude that the SPA will be the long-awaited breakthrough of EU-Japan political and security cooperation in the years ahead.
Only that it is not, at least not like this. In the agreement, the EU and Japan envision cooperation in more than 40 areas. You name it, it is all in the agreement: cooperation countering the proliferation ofweapons of mass destruction, crisis management, post-conflict reconstruction, collaboration to prevent the proliferation of conventional arms, including small arms and light weapons, joint counter-terrorism policies, joint efforts to reform the UN, development policies, disaster management, climate change and many, many other areas and issues made it onto that very long list of unresolved issues of international politics and security.
The good news is that the the SPA covers fewer issues and areas than the previous EU-Japan Action (2001-2011), which covered more than 100 areas the EU and Japan were at the time planning to cooperate on, and – with a few notable exceptions – did not. The bad news is that the new SPA still covers more than 40 areas and there is unfortunately – but then again as always - no information publicly available outlining which areas and/or issues have priority over others.
Reality (most probably) is that when one does not prioritize anything, then not much will get done unless and until there is agreement between the EU and Japan on what needs to be done first, second and third. Officials both from the EU and Japan told this author during a recent conference on EU-Japan relations organized by the European Japan Advanced Research Network (EJARN) in Tokyo that they are now looking forward to receiving feedback and input from scholars and civil society on the priorities of the implementation phase of the agreement. That is – to put it politely – surprising in view of the fact that, during the 5 years of negotiating the SPA with Japan, EU policymakers (it might have been different in Japan) had not considered the possibility and potential benefits of asking outsiders like scholars and analysts for advice.
Either way, asking scholars and civil society at large now and AFTER the adoption of the SPA to provide policymakers with input on what should be done first and how, is a little bit late and lacks seriousness. To be sure, it remains very unlikely that EU officials will in the months and years ahead actively turn to scholars asking for input and advice. This is not how Brussels and its officials in the European Union External Action Service (EEAS) typically work. Outside input and advice would most probably have suggested to limit the areas and issues of envisioned bilateral cooperation and identify maybe 10-15 priority areas – as opposed to the above-mentioned more than 40.
What certainly came as a disappointment to those who hoped that Japan would also want to get more involved in European Common Security and Defence Missions (CSDP), Brussels and Tokyo were not able to make any progress towards the adoption of the so-called Framework Partnership Agreement (FPA). The FPA would – and maybe one day will – create the legal framework to enable the deployment of Japanese armed forces within the framework of CSDP missions. The FPA would institutionalise already ongoing Japanese contributions to CSDP missions as the EU and Japan are currently in legal terms not conducting joint security and defence missions, but are engaged in what Brussels refers to ‘parallel coordinated action.’FPA negotiations, however, this author was told by EU sources, have over the last two years gone nowhere as Japan is reportedly not nearly enough interested in the agreement to adopt it in a timely fashion (or not even at all, as EU sources suspect). The original plan was to adopt the FPA together with the SPA. Japan’s relative disinterest in the FPA, the Japan scholar Paul Midford concluded during the above-mentioned conference in Tokyo, goes in accordance with Tokyo’s recent disengagement from international politics and security. Japan, Midford pointed out, does currently not have any UN peacekeepers contributing to global UN peacekeeping missions and Japan’s enthusiasm for more involvement in global security has decreased in recent years.
Indeed, Tokyo under Prime Minister Abe is clearly more interested in – his critics would say ‘obsessed with’ – revising the country’s pacifist country to allegedly make a ‘normal’ and ‘fully independent’ country out of Japan. That objective is accompanied by Tokyo seeking to further expand its hard military security ties with selected European countries such as e.g. France and the UK. Since Japan abolished its self-imposed ban to export weapons and weapons technology in 2013, defence contractors from France, the UK and Japan have established closer ties, which are accompanied by joint development of military and defence equipment.
Speaking of hard military security, Japan’s navy has recently begun to patrol the South China Sea in response to what the large majority of analysts and scholars outside of China refer to as territorial expansionism in Southeast Asian territorial waters (through e.g. the construction of civilian and military facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea). The Japanese navy would not –to put it this way- be opposed to being joined by European navy vessels checking on China in the East and South China Seas, as officials from Japan’s Ministy of Defence told this author. Japan and European naval vessels jointly patrolling the East and/or South China Seas, however, is most probably not going to take place any time soon as there is very little (if any) appetite among EU Member States to do what would push Beijing over the edge and make it respond with massive economic and trade retaliation policies, if not worse.
In sum, it seems – at least for now – that the EU and Japan were far more interested in adopting an agreement per se as opposed to adopting an agreement, which would be operational from day one after adoption. That is a shame as the EU and Japan are – at least on paper – perfectly able to make a joint difference in international politics and security should they decide to define priorities and pool resources and policy instruments. One day not so soon, most probably.