The EU’s Approach toward Relations with Tokyo and Beijing

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 9

Of the handful of official statements on Sino-Japanese relations released by the EU in recent years, nearly all have displayed a pattern of vagueness and neutrality, as evidenced by EU Secretary General Javier Solana’s comments on Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s “ice breaking” visits to Beijing and Seoul in October 2006. The EU, Solana stated, would “…welcome warmly the visit by the new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing and Seoul on Sunday and Monday. All three countries are important partners for the EU, and I am pleased to be able to congratulate all three leaders on delivering this very positive development for the region” [1]. Yet, such generic statements—in sharp contrast to the EU’s statements on other international issues of import—do not reflect a lack of interest in the dynamics of the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Tokyo. Quite the contrary, the EU has a declared ambition of being a global security actor that is committed to the maintenance of stability and promotion of economic growth across the entire East Asian region [2]. Moreover, given their immense economic interests in the region, European states would face severe costs if a conflict in the region arose.

What accounts for this sparsity of statements from Brussels, therefore, stems more from its unfamiliarity with the nuances of the bilateral relationship between China and Japan, than from strategic disinterest. The EU, long concerned with the economic prosperity and interdependence among the regional states, has only recently become cognizant of the critical implications that China’s rise has for the political and security situation in East Asia and specifically for Japan’s domestic and security considerations. Until now, the EU’s strategy in the region has been to strengthen its bilateral relations with the East Asian states as well as increase its regional economic presence. While the EU has been successful on both counts, it has yet to adopt a coherent and comprehensive strategy that addresses Japan’s concerns and actively encourages regional security and stability.

The EU and East Asian Security

The EU utilizes a broad approach toward regional and global security based upon its 2003 European Security Strategy [3]. The goals are to preserve peace and security in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter, to promote a rule-based international system and regional integration, as well as the development and consolidation of democracy and common policies to meet global challenges, such as energy, environment and health. Based upon these objectives, a strong focus in the EU on the development of the political and security situation in East Asia should be expected. Aside from the EU’s statements in support of the six-party talks and repeated calls on both China and Taiwan not to jeopardize the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, the EU is only minimally involved in security issues in East Asia. The awareness of the critical implications that China’s development has on the political and security situation in East Asia, specifically on Japan’s domestic and security policy as well as on the U.S.-Japan alliance, is only beginning to grow in Brussels. An important factor here is the historically strong security role that the United States has played in East Asia. The EU has not been perceived by the regional countries or the United States as a security actor in the region, and the EU has conveniently relied on the United States to maintain stability in the region.

The EU’s “Strategic Relations” with China and Japan

Concern in Europe over “China’s Rise” has developed differently from the concerns in East Asia and in the United States. The European debate has focused first and foremost on the economic dimension of China’s development and the opportunities available for European businesses [4]. Only recently have the political and security aspects of China’s development been creating strong concerns, and it is actually China’s intensified activities and growing influence in other regions—ones in which the EU plays a strong role, such as Africa—that are primarily causing these strong concerns (EU Business, February 15) [5]. While the EU has had a strategic partnership with China since 2003, the relationship is still driven principally by economic interests with other dimensions of the partnership underdeveloped or nonexistent [6]. Even the newly-established EU-China dialogue on strategic issues has not led to in-depth discussions on Asian security issues. Within certain circles of the EU, there is a growing acknowledgement that it needs to develop a security perspective on China. There are no clear ideas, however, on what this should contain, partly because of the EU’s general uncertainty about its security role in East Asia and especially how close it should coordinate its policy with that of the United States and Japan.

The EU’s relationship with Japan is broader, more mature and much less of a source of contention among member states than is its relationship with China. Economic interests certainly play a strong role, but the EU emphasizes that its relationship with Japan is underpinned by shared core values and principles such as democracy, rule of law and protection of human rights. As Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, recently argued, “A long-established democracy, Japan is a natural strategic partner for Europe” [7]. Yet, it is also unclear what dimensions the partnership includes. At the 2006 summit, the EU and Japan agreed to enhance their strategic dialogue on security in East Asia and adopt a forum for in-depth strategic discussions in order to better understand mutual concerns and promote regional stability and cooperation [8].

In recent years, the EU’s focus on strengthening its economic and political relations with both China and Japan has succeeded; China and Japan are increasingly dealing with the EU as single economic and political actor. This, however, also means that both Tokyo and Beijing expect the EU to reciprocally act in such a manner, adopting consistent policies on all issues. This will prove to be ever more challenging as Brussels is forced to adopt stances on issues related to disputes and tensions in Sino-Japanese political and security relations, such as the embargo on arms sales to China (EU Business, April 19).

Arms Embargo Controversy

The 2003-2005 controversy over lifting the EU’s embargo on arms sales to China illustrates the lack of awareness on the part of the EU to the political and security implications of “China’s rise” in East Asia, i.e. the growing expectations from the regional states and the United States for the EU to act as one political actor. At the European Council summit in Rome in November 2003, the EU declared its intention to “work towards lifting of the weapons embargo” that has been in place since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Proponents of abolishing the arms embargo argued that China had made some improvements on human rights and lifting the embargo was necessary to establish a “strategic partnership” with China. It soon became clear, however, that the agreement in the EU was only to begin discussions, rather than immediately lift the embargo. Even as the European states debated the issue during the following year, China incessantly demanded that progress be made toward the lifting of the arms embargo at the same time as Tokyo and Washington were demanding that the embargo remain. China’s passing of the Anti-Secession Law in March 2005, however, gave the EU an opportunity to back down, and it was agreed to delay the decision to lift the embargo. Although the arms embargo remains in place and there are no indications that it will be lifted in the near future, the issue continues to be high on the agenda for both EU-China meetings and EU-Japan meetings. Japanese leaders consistently express strong concerns about lifting the embargo, arguing that it will jeopardize stability in East Asia.

It is interesting to note that the EU’s conditions for lifting of the embargo have now broadened to include increased transparency in China’s military modernization (EU Business, April 19). This subtle development reveals how the EU is paying additional attention to the complex dynamics of East Asian politics and security and is more aware of the concerns in the region. Yet, it also indicates how difficult it is for the EU to develop a strategy that insures the EU’s credibility as a political and security actor in the region that acts independently of the United States. The issue is further complicated by the high pressure that China has placed on the EU, arguing that Brussels ought to lift the embargo in order to prove that it accepts China as an equal partner on the international stage (People’s Daily, December 19, 2006).

Promoting a Sino-Japanese Dialogue

The EU is far from being a strong security actor in East Asia, but it possesses significant “soft power” derived from its own successful example of regional economic and political integration as well as its positive experience with overcoming competitive nationalisms and promoting reconciliation. The EU, with its strong relations with China, Japan and the United States, is in an advantageous position to promote Sino-Japanese political and security dialogue. To play such a role, however, the EU needs a coherent and comprehensive strategy that encompasses more than simply the sum of the single bilateral strategies it has adopted toward Japan and China. Relying upon its current approach only places the EU in a difficult situation (e.g. adopting a position on the arms embargo controversy) where it is forced to confront irreconcilable expectations or demands from both Tokyo and Beijing. As the EU’s leaders increasingly realize, they will need to adopt a more coherent and comprehensive strategy toward Sino-Japanese relations that builds upon its strong bilateral relations with each country.


1. Comment from Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), October 10, 2006, available online at:

2. “EU-Asia: European Commission Adopts New Strategy for Enhanced Partnership,” Brussels, September 4, 2001, available online at:

3. “A Secure Europe in a Better World,” European Security Strategy, Brussels, December 2003, available online at:

4. The focus on domestic politics, especially human rights in China, however, also plays a strong role in the debate, and especially the EU Parliament strongly criticizes China and wants to make trade relations contingent upon human rights reform in China – cf. “EU Parliament Attacks China over human rights” EU Business, April 26, available online at:

5. Marcin Zaborowski, “Developing a European Security Perspective on China,” EU Institute for Security Studies, Paris, March 3, 2006, available online at:

6. Quite interestingly, at the latest EU-China summit in Helsinki in September 2006, the relationship was said to be ‘maturing into a comprehensive strategic partnership’—cf. “Joint Statement of the Ninth EU-China Summit”, Helsinki, September 9, 2006, available online at:

7. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, “New Visions for EU-Japan Relations,” speech at the opening of Joint-EU-Japan Symposium, Brussels, April 6, 2006, available online at:

8. “15th Japan-EU Summit Joint Press Statement,” Tokyo, Japan, April 24, 2006, available online at: