Tokyo and EU member states have a shared commitment to international law.
In March, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe toured France, Germany, Italy and Belgium with the primary aim of shoring up the prospects of a trade pact with the European Union that has been under negotiation since 2014. The overarching objective of Abe's visit was to underscore Japan's support for freer trade amid rising protectionist sentiment.
But while trade headlined the trip, Tokyo is also looking to the 28-country EU and its large member states for greater attention to Asia-Pacific security issues. This is especially true in the light of provocations by North Korea in recent months. Japan also continues to be concerned by Beijing's destabilizing activities in the East and South China seas.
Abe stressed the importance of bolstering security cooperation with EU officials in Brussels and with leaders of several European states. Abe and French President Francois Hollande agreed on the importance of freedom of navigation and open seas, and pledged to undertake joint naval drills in the future. Tokyo and Brussels confirmed broad agreement on the importance of international norms and laws in the maritime domain.
But Tokyo remains concerned about the level and prioritization of security relations within Japan's broader relationships with Europe, the lack of European engagement in dealing with the problems posed to Japan by China, and the approach from Brussels, as well as some individual EU states, to security flashpoints in East Asia.
An example of this was the EU's underwhelming response to a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which concluded that there is no legal basis for China's extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Brussels called for the ruling to be respected, but stopped short of urging its full implementation. European countries have also been less than attentive to destabilizing activities in the Korean peninsula and the East China Sea.
Why is this the case? Essentially, there is concern in Tokyo that Europe is unwilling to commit a meaningful presence—both in diplomatic and military terms—to the region to demonstrate a united approach in support of international rules and norms, such as the freedom of navigation.
Read the full commentary on Nikkei Asian Review here.