This week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traveled to Brussels, Belgium, in order to continue discussions of free trade with Angela Merkel, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, leaders from the European Union. The discourse has been ongoing since 2013, but it has faced a number of roadblocks.

Abe has promised to proceed with a deal as soon as possible in hopes of strengthening Japan-EU relations, specifically in terms of political and economic cooperation.

Japan-EU relations have generally sustained good-natured bilateralism. Tokyo maintains strong business connections and investment ties in many EU member nations such as Italy, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Additionally, Japan remains the EU’s sixth-largest trading partner, accounting for more than $133.7 billion in trade during the 2016 fiscal year alone.

Diplomatic Relationships Needed Now More Than Ever

The sense of urgency surrounding the dialogue of free trade has been catalyzed by Japan’s growing geopolitical instability. With the developing turmoil between North and South Korea and China’s regional dominance, Abe’s administration has prioritized stronger political relationships, specifically security ties, with its allies.

For this reason, one major point of contention in Japan-EU relations in the past has been with respect to the weight and significance of security dynamics within the relationship at large. Japan has maintained concern that Europe is inflexible when it comes to investing in a substantial militaristic and diplomatic presence in Asia.

This stipulation is of particular importance to the Abe administration as it would establish the EU’s commitment to a strategic and cooperative response to international violations — specifically, freedom of navigation as China continues to increase its control over the East and South China Seas.

Japan’s fear is that the European Union has not yet decided how it will balance its trade relations with China, while still being able to condemn the nation for its invasive activities in Southeast Asia.

Nonetheless, both leaders in Japan and the European Union agree that a free trade agreement is the most conducive approach to strengthened political and economic ties.

Overall, a free trade agreement promises to strengthen Japan-EU relations by increasing market access and lowering tariffs for both regions and improving Japan’s political influence in Europe.

Jaime Viens

Photo: Flickr