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Japan: Abe’s whirlwind European mission

Yesterday, Prime Minister Abe embarked on a whirlwind tour of Europe, just like he did last year, over the traditional Golden Week holiday in Japan writes Joshua W. Walker. This year, though, Abe’s timing may seem odd as Europe faces some of the worst crises in decades: external threats from refugee flows, Russia, terrorism, and internal unease given the possibility of the U.K. exiting the European Union and the populist feelings within the continent. However, as a new policy paper collection from GMF argues, there has never been a more crucial time globally for strong European-Japanese relations. Abe’s overarching mission for his European visit is to demonstrate Japan’s global leadership and to lay the groundwork for the upcoming G7 event he will host at the end of this month in Ise-shima, Japan. Abe seeks G7 consensus on key issues ranging from fiscal stimulus to a unified response to Russia, as well as other global governance issues such as counter-terrorism and the Syrian refugee crisis.

Abe’s whirlwind tour through Rome, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and London where he will hold summits with leaders in each European capital re-affirms his prioritization of Europe. It will also demonstrate the level to which he believes Japan can synchronize its foreign policy with its transatlantic partners in a way that compliments its security alliance with Washington. In addition to continental Europe, Abe will be making a much-anticipated stop in Sochi, Russia, on his way back to Japan for an “unofficial” summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin where he hopes to bridge the current divides between Russia and the West through his own personal relations with both parties.

With Abe’s visit, and depending on the outcomes of this year, European-Japanese relations, within the framework of trilateral cooperation including the United States, are set to enter a new era. Since the end of World War II, the U.S.-led international order has rested on European and Japanese alliances that have traditionally stayed within their own geographic zones. However, recent geopolitical events are increasingly consigning established geographical boundaries to irrelevance. Global jihadi movements now transcends such physical obstacles through cyber propaganda campaigns targeting marginalized elements in the West, giving rise to tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, Ankara, and Brussels, while Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and subsequent isolation from the international community have driven Moscow to try to strengthen its strategic partnership with Beijing.

The globalization of European problems necessitates greater international cooperation among the United States, Europe, and Japan. The seeming popularity of presidential candidates in the United States who question longstanding transatlantic and transpacific alliances only underscores the importance of European and Japanese bilateral engagement.

Prime Minister Abe’s remarkably stable tenure is making Japan a more willing partner than at any time before and allowing him to form personal relations with many of the other G7 leaders, which he will strengthen during his visits. European leaders should capitalize on this and strengthen Europe’s cooperation with Japan in the trilateral context, particularly regarding the global seas, Eurasia, and strengthening commercial ties. Finalizing an EU-Japan free trade agreement, working more closely on refugee issues, and synchronizing a policy that plays a joint European-Japanese “good cop” to America’s “bad cop” engagement with Russia would go a long way to strengthening this leg of trilateral relations.

This stands to be a fortuitous year for elevating European-Japan relations beyond just a “natural partnership.” As host for this year’s G7 summit, Prime Minister Abe seeks to demonstrate Japan’s global leadership for the world to bear witness. As China and Russia challenge the status-quo, the G7 provides an excellent platform at which to recommit the United States, Europe, and Japan to maintain the liberal international order that has endured since the end of World War II.

The extent to which Abe and his European hosts are able to clear up any misunderstandings about Japan’s overtures to Russia or Europe’s courting of China in order to focus on areas of trilateral cooperation from Central and Southeast Asia to the Middle East will be important to watch throughout the next week. Ultimately, Europe and Japan working together with the United States and Canada to bridge any differences, will determine the success of this year’s G7 – which, for Prime Minister Abe, begins today.

Joshua W. Walker is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) where he leads the Japan work and most recently was the editor of the report “Cooperation in the Midst of Crisis: Trilateral Approaches to Shared International Challenges,” which focused on U.S.-Japan-European trilateral relations from which this Transatlantic Take draws.  See more at: http://www.gmfus.org/blog/2016/05/02/abe%E2%80%99s-whirlwind-european-mission#sthash.rUy5DCzz.dpuf

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