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Japan’s Strategic Engagement with Europe


Politics in Japan are undergoing interesting churnings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dual activism in domestic theatre demonstrated by his Abenomics and in his forays in the foreign policy domain. By his bold and innovative policies, Abe has restored a sense of political stability, which the country lacked since Junichiro Koizumi retired from politics. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) which temporarily snatched power from the time-tested rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) dismally failed in governing the country, and paved the way back for the LDP to return. Abe has succeeded so far in implementing two of his three arrows successfully and the country’s economy seems back on track. Presently, he is struggling to navigate how his third arrow can be implemented successfully. In the domestic front, Abe has initiated some controversial policy measures such as attempt to reinterpret Article 9 of the Constitution, thereby review the country’s view on collective self-defence, lifted ban on arms exports and revisiting the country’s policy on the nuclear energy by attempting to restart some of the mothballed nuclear reactors.

That seems to be success story of Abe administration in the domestic front so far. But what has drawn attention of the world is his foreign policy activism. In the past year and half that Abe has been in office, he has travelled the world capitals to renew friendship, in making new friends and selling Japan’s foreign policy goals. In Southeast Asia and Africa, Abe has offered financial support to help develop the infrastructure of the countries in the region, thereby economically engage in the process of development. Abe hosted the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in April and signed a major trade deal, thereby securing uninterrupted supply of precious raw materials that Japan’s ailing economy needs. Japan sent the Emperor to India in December 2013, thereby sending a clear message that Japan sees India as a friend and the Japanese corporate can enter India in a vigorous way to deepen economic ties. He himself visited India a month later in January and discussed security and strategic issues, apart from making another financial commitment for the implementation of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor project and much more. Japan also hosted the US Secretary of State and Defence and later President Obama in April and secured a commitment that Senkaku Islands on which Japan has a territorial dispute with China are covered under Article 5 of Japan-US Security Treaty. He endorsed the ASEAN leaders’ stance on the South China Sea in the just concluded summit meeting in Myanmar that international waters should be governed by UNLCOS and international law.

Engaging with Europe

His latest foreign policy activism was demonstrated when he made the six-nation European tour in early May 2014 with twin objectives: to clinch some trade deals, and enter into understanding, if not agreement, on security deals in view of China flexing its muscle and thereby spreading unease throughout the Asia-Pacific region. His nine-day visit took him to Germany, Britain, Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium, which started less than a week after Japan hosted Obama on a state visit. Obama, however, could not successfully negotiate an agreement on the Pacific-wide free trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In 2013, Japan independently had launched trade talks with the European Union with the aim to boost business, a tie-up that was expected to account for about 40 per cent of global trade. Abe’s itinerary included a Japan-EU summit and a meeting with business leaders in Paris. He also had meeting with the NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Angel Gurria, head of the OECD.

Apart from business deals, security issue also dominated in Abe’s agenda. Japan was concerned that 10 Japanese workers were killed in 2013 in a hostage crisis in a remote Algerian gas plant, underlining the importance of building understanding on security issues with European partners. Japan’s recognition of Europe as a global partner in terms of security needs is to be understood in the background of (a) Japan lifting a self-imposed ban on weapons exports, introducing new rules covering the arms trade in a move to boost the country’s global trade, (b) Japan’s bitter territorial dispute with an increasingly assertive China, and (c) heightening of regional tension over a likely fourth nuclear test by North Korea. Earlier, Japan already secured the US commitment to the security of Senkaku during Obama’s visit. Seen from this perspective, Abe’s European sojourn was aimed at broadening Tokyo’s security ties.

With France

It was clearly visible from Abe’s agenda that Japan has started attaching more importance to these issues with European countries than before. Japan and France have already announced an intergovernmental deal to cooperate in robotics and cyber-defense as well as joint work on advanced helicopters and submarines. In 1967, Japan had adopted a policy imposing blanket ban, which prohibited arms sales to conflict-plagued countries or nations that could undermine international peace and security. This was replaced by a Cabinet decision in April 2013. Japan now already sees commercial opportunities in Europe following its lifting of this ban on arms exports. Tokyo is also eyeing a possible security logistics tie-up known as an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement with European nations. It already has such pacts with the US and Australia. [1]

During his talks with French President Francois Hollande, both the leaders agreed on a joint development of defence equipment as unmanned underwater vehicles. Japan has already agreed with Australia to make vessel fluid dynamics a subject for their joint research. The Yomiuri Shimbun observed in its editorial: “Such bilateral cooperation in the field of defense equipment will not only improve defense technology, but also curb development costs. The efforts are likely to embody a “proactive contribution to peace,” a diplomatic policy pursued by the Abe administration.” The editorial urged the administration to “collect intelligence in earnest and carry out the necessary discussions to determine what defense equipment and technology should be developed to maximize the benefits for both parties in an agreement.”

In a joint press conference with Hollande, Abe said that the two countries will promote cooperation in research and development for fast reactors, a next-generation nuclear reactor technology. Highlighting the severe security environments in both Europe and East Asia, both the leaders agreed on the security cooperation and Abe was happy to get Hollande’s support for his proactive contribution to peace. Abe made an apparent reference to tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea while observing “I hope for stability in the East China Sea” and stressed the importance of “dialogue” as the only means to settle the issue. [2]

Both the leaders also talked about nuclear test project. France has evinced interest to test its latest nuclear technology, called Astrid, in Japan’s Monju reactor which has been shut down since an industrial accident there in 2010. The anti-nuclear group Sortir du Nucleaire, or Nulcear Phase-out, called on French lawmakers to stand against any kind of agreement that would further this technology. It alleged that the Astrid reactor uses the same technique as the Superphoenix, a prototype that was tested near Lyon and shut down in 1998.[3]

With Britain

One of the major foreign policy planks of the Abe administration has been to give priority to maintain the international order and promote free trade. With this view, Abe’s European sojourn was to give momentum to further solidify strategic relations.[4] During talks with his British counterpart David Cameron, both leaders agreed to launch the two-plus-talks between their foreign and defence secretaries at an early date and promote joint development of defence equipment and technology. Japan has similar 2+2 dialogue with India. Technology for protective clothing against chemicals was among their immediate joint development projects. The agreement was in accordance with the new “three principles on transferring defense equipment” that the Cabinet approved in April by replacing the previous three principles on arms exports.[5] A joint statement issued by both the leaders also clearly stated their commitment to the freedom of navigation and over flight.

With Spain

As with Britain and France, Abe and his Spanish counterpart, Mariaano Rajoy, agreed to beef up defence-related exchanges between the two countries. Both confirmed that Japan would strengthen cooperation with not only Spain but also Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. Abe sought the understanding for his security policy based on the so-called proactive pacifism concept aimed to make the country an active contributor to world peace. Visiting Santiago de Compostela on strong insistence of Rajoy as it was his home state, both the leaders discussed the situations in Ukraine and East Asia. Rajoy took Abe to UNESCO World Heritage sites in the city, such as Route of Santiago de Compostela and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.[6]

With Portugal

While in Lisbon, Abe discussed with his counterpart, Pedro Passos Coelho, on the need to ensure the freedom of navigation on the high seas based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international laws. Both the leaders agreed to promote maritime security, including antipiracy efforts. A joint statement issued after the bilateral summit observed that both the countries “supported a fair, just and rule-based multilateral system and reaffirmed the importance of securing and maintaining freedom of the high seas”.[7] It thus transpired that for Japan, Portugal is an important partner that shares basic values. Through the statement, Abe apparently warned against China’s increasing assertiveness in its neighbouring seas.

Besides, both the leaders also agreed to work together to help Japan and the European Union conclude an Economic Partnership Agreement soon. They also affirmed cooperation between the two countries “in developing environmentally friendly communities by using cutting-edge renewable technologies”.[8] They stressed the need to strengthen ties between Japan and the Lisbon-based Community of Portuguese Language Speaking Countries.

NATO and Message to China

Abe confirmed with Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Markel the importance of obeying international law in connection with the East Asian situation. Abe reaching understanding with a host of leaders in Europe were in the light of China’s attempts to change the status quo by force through such actions as establishing an air defence identification zone and convey the message to China that China should abide by international rules.

Concerns about China’s rising military spending and growing assertiveness and dispute over Senkaku Islands drove Abe to sign a new partnership agreement with NATO. Following the accord signed between Abe and NATO Secretary-General Fogh Rasmussen at NATO’s headquarter in Brussels, cooperation between Japan and NATO will deepen in areas such as counter-piracy, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. [9]

Addressing ambassadors from the 28 NATO nations, Abe drew parallel between the situation in Ukraine, where Russia occupied and annexed Crimea, and Asia, in an apparent allusion to a standoff between Japan and China over tiny inhabited islets in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. In a joint news conference with Rasmussen on 6 May, Abe thundered: “We will not tolerate any change of status quo through intimidation or coercion or force. This is not only applicable to Europe or Ukraine. This is applicable to East Asia and it is applicable to the whole world.” In fact the western world is perturbed over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Unless Russia and Ukraine’s political parties recognise the legitimacy of Ukraine’s May 25 presidential elections, ensuring stability will be difficult.

NATO has declared that it will not get involved militarily in Ukraine. But at the same time it has reinforced security in the Eastern European members of NATO that are worried by Russia’s shrewd assertiveness. It prefers dialogue to resolve the problem. NATO has already deployed planes, ships and troops to Eastern Europe, and if necessary, would take further steps to ensure effective defence and protection of its members.

During his first short term as Prime Minister in 2007, Abe had visited the NATO headquarters. He has long been interested in strengthening Japan’s ties with the US-dominated Western alliance. The need to hasten the process of deepening ties with NATO has been precipitated by growing security concerns in Japan’s neighbourhood, particularly China’s military build-up and North Korean missile launches and nuclear tests. A fourth nuclear test by the North Korea would add further to Japan’s worry about its security. President Park Geun-hye of South Korea has already warned about the “domino effect” of another North Korean test and the resultant start of a new arms race in Northeast Asia. While speaking at a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, the governing body of the NATO, in Brussels, Abe made similar remarks, and cited China’s expansion of military expenditures that “lacks transparency”, is driving other Southeast countries to increase their own defence expenditures in response.

Fearing that free flow of arms and sensitive dual-use goods and technologies could be factors for instability in the region, Abe urged strongly for stringent export control. While reiterating Japan’s commitment to remain a responsible major power in the region, Abe promised to exercise restraint but asserted that Japan would defend maritime order, including freedom of navigation, as well as freedom of over flight, if another country attempts unilaterally to violate and change the status quo by force or coercion. This was a direct and strong message to Beijing whose recent assertive stances in the East and South China Seas have come under flak from many Asian countries. In the light of this, Abe sought the understanding of Japan’s partners in Europe to his government’s efforts to reinterpret the Constitution that would allow the nation to exercise its right to collective self-defence. Abe exulted confidence of Japan’s “intention and the ability to play a more proactive role than ever before” to ensure peace in the region and the world.

Like in the security domain, in the economic domain too, Abe proposed creating an economic sphere with countries that share fundamental values that ensures competition under fair and impartial rules. Chairing the meeting for the first time in 36 years to mark the 50th anniversary of its entry into the OECD, Abe made this proposal in a keynote speech at a ministerial council meeting of the OECD. In making a forceful statement on the rules of trade, Abe remarked: “We must not allow a free ride on intellectual capital. We must not have a situation in which some come to prevail in price competition by compelling workers to labor under severe conditions and by discharging loads into the environment”. Those who participate in the proposed economic sphere “must agree to the new economic order”. Any observer of the East Asian situation cannot miss the point that the comments were an implicit warning to China accused of violating intellectual property protection and other international rules.

But does Japan actually expect NATO to play a direct military role in the event of a conflict erupting between Japan and China over the Senkaku islets? Though Japan might not expect direct intervention in such an event, it wants to share perceptions and approaches with allies and countries friendly with it. After the NATO operations end in Afghanistan, NATO forces are likely to remain engaged more in defending its territory rather than outside the NATO territory. That might embolden Russia to flex its military muscle more. That possibility is another worry for Abe and therefore he wanted a commitment from the NATO in such a scenario.

After Abe reached the agreement with Rasmusen, Japan will conduct joint drills with member countries of the NATO’s Operation Oceans Shield, the organisation’s counter-piracy mission. The agreement was following the consensus reached on sharing fundamental values including democracy and respect for the rule of law. The message that one can draw from Abe’s European tour was that he is trying to reach out to as many countries as possible to seek common ground for respect for universal values and global norms in conducting a nation’s foreign policy, both in economic and security domains. It must not, however, be seen as an anti-China drive but surely a message to Beijing that it mends its manners.

(The writer Dr. Rajaram Panda, is currently The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, China, JAPAN. E-mail:


[ 1] “Abe leaves for six-nation European trip”, Korea Herald, 29 April 2014,

[2] “Abe, Hollande agree to talks on defense equipment”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 5 May 2014,

[3] “Japan and France to strengthen ties in defence equipment”, 5 May 2014,

[4] “Japan, European countries should strengthen ties in defence equipment”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, editorial, 4 May 2014,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Abe, Rajoy to beef up defence exchanges”, 5 May 2014,

[7] “Japan, Portugal stress freedom of navigation”, 4 May 2014,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Adrian Croft, “Abe strengthens ties with NATO”, The Japan Times, 7 May 2014,

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