The EU–Japan Partnership in the Post-pandemic Order: What Comes Next?

Published date01 March 2024
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/23477970241230376
AuthorLluc Vidal López
Date01 March 2024
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
The EU–Japan
Partnership in the
Post-pandemic Order:
What Comes Next?
Lluc Vidal López1
Abstract
EU–Japan relations have been treated in the literature as a ‘normal relationship’
between two mature actors with a long history of promises, expectations and
indifferences. However, since 2004, the EU has been considering its relations
with Japan as a strategic partnership; that is, a powerful relationship that plays an
increasingly central role in the international system. Recent changes in the EU
and Japanese domestic and international environments show how both parties’
relations have shifted from a period of indifferences and low expectations to a
new momentum of cooperation in facing common global challenges such as open
trade, climate change, multilateralism or the recent pandemic. The main objec-
tive of this article is, first, to suggest a framework of analysis to better calibrate
the EU–Japan relationship, and second, to understand recent trends in EU–Japan
relations that have enabled the Economic Partnership Agreement that entered
into force in 2019.
Keywords
EU–Japan, Japanese foreign policy, interregionalism, Economic Partnership
Agreement
Introduction
The EU–Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), which has been in
force since February 2019, is one of the most significant achievements in the
long-standing relationship between these two global powers. Beyond reaffirming
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
11(1) 122–145, 2024
© The Author(s) 2024
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DOI: 10.1177/23477970241230376
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1 Department of Law and Political Science, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, Catalonia,
Spain
Correspondig author:
Lluc Vidal López, Department of Law and Political Science, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barce-
lona, Catalonia, Spain.
E-mail: Lluc.Vidal@uoc.edu
Vidal 123
their commitment to a liberal order based on multilateralism, freedom and free
trade, they hailed the EPA as a landmark agreement that will bring about eco-
nomic growth and job creation. This agreement stipulates the elimination of 99%
of tariffs on European goods entering Japan and 97% of Japanese products in the
EU, rendering it the most comprehensive bilateral accord ever crafted by the EU.
President Juncker stated that ‘The depth of this agreement goes beyond free trade.
Its impact goes far beyond our shores’ (European Council, 2019). Only one year
after the EPA came into effect, EU exports to Japan grew by 6.6% and Japanese
exports to the EU by 6.3%, demonstrating the tangible benefits of this agreement
(Modern Diplomacy, 2020). Undoubtedly, it represents the culmination of a long
history of promises, expectations and indifferences.
Beyond the reiterated rhetoric of good will and absence of conflict between
both actors at any joint declaration, the overall EU–Japan relationship has been
treated in the literature as a ‘normal relationship’ between two mature and rele-
vant powers of the international system. The EU and Japan are two actors that
share a combined population of 572 million, a nominal GDP that represents
almost 20% of the world’s GDP and 40% of global trade—up to 70% in some key
sectors like pharmaceuticals or aeronautics. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, in
2019, exports to Japan reached €61.37 billion (2.9% of total EU exports) and
Japan’s exports to the EU reached €62.8 billion (3.2 of total EU imports),
Japan being the sixth largest trade partner (after the United States, China,
Switzerland, Russia and Turkey) (European Commission, 2021). As the former
EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Pattern, once pointed out, ‘The
problem with EU–Japan relations is that there are no problems’ (Berkofsky, 2007).
However, current changes in the EU and Japanese domestic and international
environments show how both countries’ concerns have shifted from trade issues
to cooperation in facing common global challenges such as open trade, climate
change, digital transformation, nuclear disarmament, the COVID-19 pandemic
and more recently, the EU–Japan collaboration on the war in Ukraine. In a joint
declaration made in June 2022, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and President of
the European Commission (EC) Ursula von der Leyen emphasised the signifi-
cance of the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to reaffirm the strategic partnership
between Japan and the EU, given their shared values (European Council, 2022).
Furthermore, during the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2022, Kishida expressed his
belief in the broader implications of the Ukraine crisis, stating ‘Ukraine today,
East Asia tomorrow’ (Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), 2022a).
Effectively, since the early 2000s, the EU has been considering its relations
with Japan as a strategic partnership; that is, Japan is one of the nations that for the
EU plays an increasingly central role in the international system. The result has
been the signing of the EPA between Japan and the EU, an agreement that accord-
ing to Rasmussen (2018), a former NATO Secretary, goes beyond economic ben-
efits: ‘[i]t sends a powerful sign that United States retrenchment will not see the
democratic world abandon our values. This trade agreement is about freedom, and
we [the EU] need Japan to help us defend it.’
Although the relationship between the EU and the United States, and the
United States and Japan, has been analysed in depth, the EU–Japan link has been

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