Event Report|Japan Up Close with Europe: On How to Further this Key Relationship

As global events transpire at a much more rapid pace, the Japan-EU relationship has become ever more important in this period of increased uncertainty and complexity. The Economic Partnership Agreement signed last year has brought both sides even closer, and further agreements currently under discussion will surely open new doors of cooperation. In order to illuminate the current situation as well as to consider what the future has in store, Japan Up Close has hosted a special online seminar, “Japan Up Close with Europe: Perspectives on How to Further this Key Relationship,” which brought together scholars for an open and frank discussion on how Japan and the EU can forge new links that will serve to bolster the liberal international order that will ensure global peace and prosperity.

Maaike Okano-Heijmans on Digital Connectivity

Photo:Maaike Okano-Heijmans

Maaike Okano-Heijmans is a senior research fellow at the Netherlands Institute for International Relations in The Hague. Her main research deals with connectivity and the geopolitics of high-technology in EU-Asia relations, with particular focus on Japan, China, and the Indo-Pacific.

The digital domain is very important for the EU, although within international relations it often does not receive the emphasis given to trade or investment, despite having significant influence on both. The recent Connectivity Partnership signed by Japan and the EU in 2019 has significantly increased the level and scope of our cooperation, setting out goals for digital regulation and e-commerce, as well as transportation, energy and people-to-people connectivity. Japan and the EU share similar challenges as well as opportunities in the digital domain, such as social digitalization and digital infrastructure improvements, which require consideration on how to proceed in the future. This also marked the first time that the EU included a reference to the “Indo-Pacific” region in an agreement, most likely at the behest of Japan. Since then, the EU has been taking strides toward forming an Indo-Pacific strategic outlook, in which digital connectivity will play a significant role.

Thus, both the EU and Japan possess an interest in not only affecting greater digitalization at home, but also in working with third-party countries as well as multilateral institutions in this field. Some countries are adopting China-style internet firewalls, which limit online freedom of speech and transparency. Conversely, a US-style approach can lead to corporations exploiting personal data of its users for profit and without oversight. This can lead to the dissemination of social media disinformation with little or no accountability. While Europe shares considerably more norms with the US than China, neither is a perfect fit. Although the need for social distance in work and study during the current pandemic highlighted the benefits of digitalization, this was tempered by a few negative aspects, such as governments adopting intrusive digital tracking systems. Acting upon agreed principles and the goals stated in the Connectivity Partnership can provide a path where nations can find a better balance between the interests of governments, companies and consumers/users in ways that are respectful of “digital” human rights.

Joanna Guzik on Aging Society and Education

Photo:Joanna Guzik

Joanna Guzik is an assistant professor at the Institute of Middle and Far East, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Her research focuses on contemporary Japanese society and domestic policies, modern Japanese history, and Polish-Japanese relations.

A pressing issue currently faced by developed nations is that of an aging society, a phenomenon described as an approaching “silver tsunami.” 1 in 6 people worldwide are projected to be over 65 by 2050; 1 in 4 will be over 65 in North America and Europe, and nearly 4 million will be over 100. Italy, Finland and Portugal occupy the top three spots among EU countries with about 22% of its population being over 65, which is considered the standard retirement age. On the other hand, Japan’s figure has already surpassed 28%, making it not only the most aged, but also one of the fastest aging nations in the world.

Undeniably, this has a significant impact on both society and the economy, with Japan and the EU now having to face the problem of how a dwindling working-age taxpaying population will support the non-working elderly population. How Japan tackles this issue can serve as a guide that other nations can follow. Therefore, Japan’s domestic policy has the potential of being a platform for social cooperation, such as barrier-free city planning that is elderly friendly, assisting the elderly to be more active, and encouraging diet and lifestyle changes that can lead to a healthy longevity.

Education is another platform that has the potential of becoming a social cooperation platform, and one that has clear links with the general health of the elderly. In comparison with schools in the EU, Japanese schools place a greater emphasis on sports and physical education besides conventional teaching. In 2008, the Japanese government announced a goal of receiving 300,000 foreign students to Japan by 2020. While this was achieved a year early in 2019, almost 94% of the participating students came from Asia, and a mere 4% were from Europe and North America. In this regard, Japan-EU cooperation on education, especially student exchanges, appears to be lagging. The reasons behind this are multifold, including language barriers, distance and cost, to mention a few. As these exchanges can create a foundation for greater cooperation and understanding, it is imperative that Japan and the EU work closer together to expand such programs, which will essentially be an investment in our future.

Karlis Bukovskis on Security Related to Japan and the EU

Photo:Karlis Bukovskis

Karlis Bukovskis is the Deputy Director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs and currently also a visiting Fulbright Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University, SAIS. His research focus is on the global political economy, the international financial system, and the EU.

While Japan and the EU are like-minded partners and are working together in promoting democracy and human rights, geographical distance can lead to different threat perceptions and vulnerabilities, as well as partners. From a security perspective, the EU is weak without NATO, especially after Brexit, which led to the EU losing not only a nuclear power, but also a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The EU also lost about 14% of NATO’s total forces. A European Defense Fund has recently been added to the EU budget, but a common military industrial complex for Europe is still many years away. This means that it will be some time before direct military cooperation between the EU and Japan becomes possible.

Cooperation via NATO, on the other hand, is much more realistic. NATO includes the US, UK and Canada, with Japan long considered NATO’s closest ally in Asia. Japan-Europe cooperation took a step forward in 2018, when the JMSDF warships took part in exercises in the Baltic Sea for the first time. It should be noted that the Chinese ships had done the same with Russia the year before. With more calls for political and military burden sharing, Japanese participation is likely to increase, particularly in areas where Japan can effectively engage the local populace and provide greater operational stability.

Finally, there is the “outsider factor,” which in this case consists of China and the US. While Europe and the US have been engaging with China economically for several decades, the 17+1 summit (a meeting comprising China and 17 central and eastern European states) has been losing steam as the coronavirus pandemic became a more pressing issue. Closer relations with China have also been hampered by growing criticism from other parts of Europe. China and Russia are collaborating, but even with improved relations, the two nations are still far from forging a relationship like US-EU, or US-Japan. The US, meanwhile, is adjusting to the new reality of not being the world’s police officer. The cost of unilaterally maintaining global order has become much too expensive, and thus the US is now nudging partner nations to increase their burden sharing so that they can contribute more to their own defense in addition to preserving the stability of the liberal international order. One positive side effect of this is that it will lead to more dialogue and cooperation between nations in the area of defense cooperation.

Q&A Session

Photo:Tosh Minohara

Tosh Minohara is a Professor of International Relations and Security Studies at the Graduate School of Law and Politics, Kobe University. He is also the founder and chairman of the non-profit organization, Research Institute of Indo-Pacific Affairs (RIIPA).

In the remaining time, the webinar was opened to the floor and several questions were presented to the speakers, paraphrased here in brief. The moderator for the Q&A session was Professor Tosh Minohara.

Minohara: What are some areas that Japan and NATO can further cooperate in the future? It is my understanding that a cooperation framework already exists in the area of outer space and intelligence sharing.

Bukovskis: Europe is primarily collaborating with Japan through the United States. I do not believe that NATO presently cannot be expanded in a manner that includes Japan, but there certainly could be a NATO+Japan format. Steps can also be taken to improve interoperability through joint military exercises and working together in peacetime maritime security operations.

Minohara: The aging society situation in Europe and the US appears to be somewhat mitigated through immigration policy. What lessons can Japan draw from this, and what path should Japan pursue to counteract this trend toward an advanced aging society?

Guzic: Immigration can flatten the pace and curve of aging, but according to demographers it cannot change an aging society into a young one. It can be a solution to make changes less abrupt and allow for more time to transition, which is something that we see in Germany and France. Therefore, having a viable immigration policy is undoubtedly a smart path that can add to Japan’s diversity as well.

Minohara: What are the main areas in which Japan and Europe can collaborate on to make a profound digital impact upon society?

Okano-Heijmans: A great deal can be done in digital ODA (development assistance), such as providing expertise and funds to developing countries to develop their digital infrastructure. But Europe and Japan are laggards in the e-economy, leaving ASEAN and elsewhere with no option but to depend on Chinese and American digital frameworks. We both need to nurture our own digital technology companies and develop our digital innovations, and ensure that they become a new global standard. Or else, we will be dominated by China and the US.

In Conclusion

The shared values between Japan and the EU creates a wealth of opportunities for further collaboration in the quest of maintaining global peace and stability in a rapidly changing world. Our mutual bond has been further strengthened by the 2018 Strategic Partnership Agreement, the 2019 Connectivity Partnership, and most recently, the 2020 Economic Partnership Agreement. All these serve to bring Japan and Europe much closer together, allowing both sides to coordinate more effectively in becoming a third pillar that espouses liberalism, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This will no doubt serve to function as a proactive presence that can assist emerging market societies in embracing and nurturing a human-centered approach in tackling the many global problems that we face today.

(This seminar was held on March 6, 2021.)

Watch a recording of the event

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