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The EU-Japan partnership in the Indo-Pacific: opportunities and challenges Analysis of Elcano Royal Institute, March 2021

This paper analyses the common and divergent interests of Japan and the EU in the Indo-Pacific and identifies the most promising areas for cooperation.

In recent years Europeans have reassessed the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific. Several member states (France, Germany and the Netherlands) have already published their own approaches and an Indo-Pacific outlook or strategy for the EU is now being discussed in Brussels. This development confirms the convergence of views and interests with Japan, which has been rolling out its vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) since 2016. As a result, promoting bilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific has become one of the top priorities for the EU-Japan partnership, as reflected by the Third Meeting of the Joint Committee on the implementation of the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) held on 26 February.

Indeed, Japan and the EU, two like-minded partners, are both committed to the multilateral rules-based order that is being challenged in the Indo-Pacific. They both recognise that their security and prosperity are dependent on the open and secure maritime routes running through the region and on the respect for the rule of law by all players. They thus share a fundamental interest in addressing the sources of instability in the Indo-Pacific by ensuring a balance of power, the maintenance of a law-based order and good governance. For that, they can build on their respective experiences in supporting connectivity and upholding maritime security in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans to further their cooperation.

While there are many common interests involved in acting in the region, there are also challenges. In particular, the EU and Japan are not located in the same part of the world and the differences in their perceptions of, and relations with, China and the US can cause unease. In particular, the EU’s ‘strategic autonomy’ has caused concern in Japan, which sees it as a potential impediment to shaping a coalition of like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan is also unsure of the EU’s definite stance on China, or on the sustainability of its future commitment to the Indo-Pacific.

Expectation gaps should thus be avoided at all cost by ensuring frequent consultations between the partners and through a thorough exchange of information to reach a common understanding of the situation in the Indo-Pacific. This paper suggests a number of areas –maritime security, connectivity, the rule of law and governance of the commons– to harvest the low-hanging fruits of cooperation and ensure the credibility and sustainability of a shared commitment to the Indo-Pacific.

Japan and Europe: converging interests in the Indo-Pacific

Both Japan and the EU now recognise the central importance of the Indo-Pacific for their economic and security interests. Back in 2016, Prime Minister Abe articulated his Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision, which takes stock of the economic and strategic integration of the vast area running from the eastern coast of Africa to the South Pacific. Importantly, FOIP is a flexible and evolutionary geopolitical narrative that offers an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), seen by Tokyo as a ploy for Beijing to expand its influence, revise the post-1945 world order and impose its own standards. Therefore, Japan’s vision for the region has three pillars: upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade; the promotion of connectivity through infrastructure to achieve prosperity; and the contribution to peace and security through capacity-building, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and anti-piracy operations.

The EU is still not officially using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, but it nonetheless recognises that this vast region is now the world’s epicentre in terms of geoeconomics and geopolitics, in which any disruption directly impacts its key interests. In particular, Europe, as a trade powerhouse, has obvious interests in keeping the vital maritime routes to Asia open, secure and stable. The Indo-Pacific is also the central stage of the Sino-US geostrategic competition that will shape the future world order. In this context, the EU wants to ensure that the power shift will not lead to a new order that will be detrimental to its interests. In addition, a multipolar region should be fostered to mitigate the negative effects of great-power rivalry. Finally, as a normative power, the EU cares about maintaining a multilateral, rules-based order that is one of the key conditions of its prosperity.

Therefore, the EU has taken a series of step to demonstrate a more consistent posture in Asia, beginning with the publication of its EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy and its commitment to enhance its security cooperation in and with Asia (2018). The March 2019 Strategic Outlook qualifying China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival pointed to a more strategic posture vis à vis Beijing. Brussels has also made efforts to deepen its relations with its local partners: Japan, but also India, South-East Asian countries, ASEAN and others. France, Germany and the Netherlands have already adopted their own Indo-Pacific strategies and encourage the EU to design its own Indo-Pacific outlook. Such a document would allow Brussels to articulate a clear strategic vision that encompasses its various initiatives in the region and clearly positions the EU as a relevant actor in the context of Sino-US rivalry. As the EU devises its approach, its convergence with Japan’s vision has been made evident by the invitation extended to the Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi to present Tokyo’s FOIP to the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council.

In addition to these convergent interests, the institutionalisation of the EU-Japan partnership since 2018 is providing a solid ground for the two players to expand their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Their Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) aims not only to show their commitment to free trade, but also to set high-level norms and standards and write the ground-rules following the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) is a broad framework to enable the promotion of their shared values (democracy, human rights, the rule of law and so on) on the international stage in a variety of domains. Their Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure (2019) shows the synergy between the EU-Asia Connectivity strategy and Japan’s Partnership for quality infrastructures. The EU-Japan strategic partnership is thus, in itself, a key instrument to uphold a multilateral rules-based order and to induce disruptive powers, such as China, to play by the rules. In the Indo-Pacific the convergence is particularly salient as regards the promotion of the rule of law, the strengthening of maritime security and the support for connectivity.

As Sino-US rivalry deepens, Japan’s expectations for an enhanced European commitment in the Indo-Pacific have been growing. Tokyo and Brussels both consider that a Sino-US confrontation is detrimental to their interests, they want to mitigate its negative side-effects. In particular, they want to avoid a complete economic decoupling with China, while at the same time being able to protect and place restrictions on Chinese practices in strategic sectors. Japan and the EU both want to keep a conditional engagement with China, and strive to uphold a rules-based system to integrate Beijing in it, or to constrain inappropriate Chinese behaviour. Finally, they want to offer an alternative to countries that do not want to choose sides between China and the US, such as those in South-East Asia, and contribute to building up their resilience. Despite this underlying convergence of views, EU and Japanese interests and priorities are not aligned.

> Read the whole article on the website of the Elcano Royal Institute.

Indo-Pacific Japan