Partnering with Europe to Expand Diplomatic Options

Sakai Kazunari [Profile]

[2012.06.28] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

The first Diplomatic Bluebook, published in 1957, established three central pillars for Japan’s diplomacy: foreign policy collaboration with nations of the free world, diplomacy centered on the United Nations, and adherence to a position as an Asian nation. Since then, the various government cabinets have built their foreign policy platforms on these principles. Collaboration with nations of the free world essentially meant valuing the Japan-US treaty alliance, while the allusion to Japan’s position as an Asian power acknowledged the importance of relations with China in particular.

At present there are considerable problems with all of these pillars, however. In terms of Japan-US relations, there is the ongoing impasse in the debate over relocation of the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station. Former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s declaration that the base should be relocated “outside the country, or at the very least outside Okinawa,” led to confusion, and there have been protests from Okinawa ever since, with no solution in sight. Then there is the Trans-Pacific Partnership issue. Despite demands from the United States to expedite the process regarding this free-trade agreement, Japan has yet to join talks on the TPP due to opposition from agricultural organizations and divisions within government. Similarly, there are many problems in Japan’s relationship with China, including China’s restrictions of rare earth exports, the conflict over the Senkaku Islands, and the gas field development issue in the East China Sea.

Amicable Relations with Europe

Relations with the United States and China are essential elements of Japanese diplomacy, and it is vital that Japan address unresolved issues and strengthen its ties with both nations. Progress could reach a dead end, however, if Japan’s diplomacy focusses only on these two choices. There is of course the remaining pillar: diplomacy centered on the United Nations. Bolstering diplomacy vis-à-vis the United Nations is important and some success may be achieved by following this avenue. There are those who are pushing for Japan to gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, but even if US backing can be gained for this effort it will not be easy, by any means, to receive support from China.

Given this situation, it seems prudent for Japan to seek new choices that will allow it to break through the current deadlock. The first option that comes to mind is Europe. Present-day relations with Europe have progressed since the 1991 joint declaration issued by Japan and the European Community (the precursor to today’s European Union), in which the two parties recognized each other’s positions as major economic powers and stated their intention to build cooperative relations on the economic as well as the political and security fronts. But opportunities to strengthen ties were not always available in the 1990s due to the stagnation that followed the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble and the Yugoslav wars that broke out in the aftermath of the Cold War. Nevertheless, Japan and Europe cultivated a shared awareness of their common values with respect to democratic principles, the rule of law, and human rights. Europe has had a favorable image of Japan and a feeling of trust between the two sides has been steadily nurtured, building up a foundation for advancing a global partnership.

Matching Priorities on North Africa and the Middle East

In examining Japan’s diplomatic efforts, the situation in North Africa and the Middle East merits particular attention. The region is host to many conflicts, most notably that involving the Palestinians, but at the same time it is the source of the bulk of Japan’s oil imports (with around 87% of these imports coming from the Middle East in fiscal 2010 according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry). Meanwhile, from Europe’s perspective, stabilization of this region is of critical importance, given its geopolitical proximity. In this sense, North Africa and the Middle East constitute a key region where the political concerns of Europe and Japan are in accord. Indeed, already there are examples of cooperation between the two sides. For instance, the EU implemented Operation Atalanta in 2008 as a maritime security measure to counter escalating piracy in the seas off the coast of Somalia, which are a critical entry point for ships, for the sake of economic and resource security and to safeguard World Food Program vessels transporting famine-relief supplies. Japan supported this operation in 2009 by dispatching patrol planes and escort warships carrying coast guard personnel. In 2011, a base of operations was established in Djibouti to accommodate Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force troops, and it is currently engaged in antipiracy operations.

The important point to note here is that compared to the United States, which is strongly inclined toward playing power politics in the Middle East, Japan and the EU have a different orientation. Instead of adopting an aggressive approach, Japan and the EU are focused on economic stability and resource security, and incorporate the humanitarian viewpoint of seeking stabilization and development for the region. America’s militaristic approach to problem solving contrasts sharply with the aspirations of Japan and Europe to solve problems using civilian methods. Japan and Europe share the same perspective on the goals and the policy means for bringing stability to the region, and are developing actual operations to realize their objectives.(*)

Moving from Bilateral to Multilateral Frameworks

“Apathy” is a word often used to describe relations between Europe and Japan. But even though the two sides are geographically remote from each other, neither can afford to neglect these relations, given the recent changes in the international environment and the resulting need to rethink diplomatic strategies. The opportunities for strengthening Japan-Europe ties are particularly ripe with regard to the Mediterranean area stretching from North Africa to the Middle East, where the Arab Spring has brought political change to many countries as well as a desire for economic and political stability. However, cooperation will not bring significant results unless it is part of a coherent plan. If Japan can project a global vision, its ties with Europe will contribute to significant results. Japan must convey its own vision, while relying on a multilateral framework to address a variety of global problems such as the issue of the environment, rather than limiting itself to its separate, bilateral ties with the United States, China, and Europe .

(Originally written in Japanese on May 1, 2012.)

(*) ^ This topic is discussed in detail in Noemi Lanna’s article “Japan and Europe in the Mena (Middle East and North Africa) Area: Towards a New Bilateral Agenda?” published by the Intercultural Research Center (IReC) of Kobe University in its 2012 research publication Yōroppa ni okeru taminzokukyōzon to EU (The EU and Multiethnic Coexistence in Europe). 

  • [2012.06.28]

Professor at the Graduate School of Intercultural Studies, Kobe University. Holds a PhD from Kobe University. Graduated from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in 1992 with a degree in French language and culture, and earned his master’s degree in international studies from the university’s Graduate School of Area and Culture Studies. Did graduate work at Hitotsubashi University before joining the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Culture in 1996, where he researched French educational policies. Past positions include invited professor at Institut d’études politiques de Paris and at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. Published works include Yōroppa no Minzoku Tairitsu to Kyōsei (Ethnic Conflict and Harmony in Europe).

Related articles
Other columns

Video highlights

New series

  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news