European diplomats in the Land of the Rising Sun

14 July 2023 /

7 min

The European Union and Japan share a close cooperative relationship, especially since the entry into force in 2019 of both the bilateral Strategic Partnership Agreement and Economic Partnership Agreement. In a global context of rearmament, Japan has redefined its defence strategy and strengthened its ties with the EU. What is the concrete mission of EU diplomats in Tokyo?

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be an EU diplomat? Well, M. Klemen Polak is the First Counsellor of the Political, Press and Information Section at the EU Delegation to Japan. He explains his daily life at the Delegation and the Delegation’s mission.

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“Japan is the partner in the region with whom we are working extremely close”

Eyes on Europe (EoE): For the EU-Japan Summit in May 2022, European Council President Charles Michel stated that Japan is the EU’s closest “strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific region”; why so?

M. Klemen Polak (KP): The EU-Japan Summit took place only two months after the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Europe and Japan were in shock about what happened and realised how fragile our international system suddenly became. The EU’s immediate and united response to the Russian aggression was well-perceived on the Japanese side and increased our standing in the region. We were always seen more as a trading partner, but suddenly we became a security actor, and it was also well received by the Japanese leaders.

Hence, Japan is our strategic partner, this has been framed in several important documents, including the Strategic Partnership document and the Economic Partnership Agreement from 2019. You can see how this partnership works well in the context of the war in Ukraine.

Japan, from the very beginning, actively engaged in addressing the challenges by adopting the same packages of sanctions, sending very strong messages politically, and engaging in the multilateral forums to gain support for certain policies.

“In the context of overall security concerns, Japan set a very ambitious goal”

EoE: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will allocate 60 billion euros a year to Japan’s defence budget from 2022 to 2027, more than the military expenditures of France and the UK. This situation has not happened since the Second World War; why now?

KP: Like every country, Japan’s security strategy has also been importantly shaped by its location and the geopolitical circumstances. Very similarly in Europe, we see that our defence budgets are being increased. Japan also took a decision to increase its defence budget and bring it to the level of the NATO standard of 2% of GDP in the coming years. This is a significant step, and now it needs to be seen in the coming months how this budget will be secured and how it will be spent on all the various important activities. It is not only on the defence equipment. It’s also in terms of new technologies, research development, building capacities, and refurbishing outdated infrastructure.

EoE: Does the Japanese population mainly support this change of policy?

KP: From what I see, the support is there, and nobody contested the increased defence budget spending. Nobody, for the time being, challenged this decision, and it is to be seen in the coming weeks how to secure the budget.

EoE: Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe initiated an “active pacifism” policy towards China; what does it imply?

KP: One of the policies of former Prime Minister Abe linked to this active pacifism was to establish the National Security Council. He defined the first national security strategy with the awareness that Japan could not just continue its post-World War II defence-oriented standing but become more active in the face of the new situations in the region and globally. Everyone has to see how to position themselves in this new global structure. At the end of last year, Japan revised its National Security Strategy. I think it went even further than active pacifism, with more defined objectives to be reached to strengthen it. It’s not only national defence standing but also how it will be reacting in certain crises.

“We have common objectives to ensure the safety and security of cyberspace”

EoE: Japan is also concerned about cyberattacks coming from China; how can Japan protect itself in this field? Furthermore, how can the EU assist?

KP: Cyber issues are new challenges in the area of security, also for diplomats. When I started my diplomatic work years ago, we were addressing completely different challenges: disarmament and crisis management … Cybercrimes have no physical borders, so in this field, we are neighbouring countries, and I see a lot of potential for our cooperation with Japan.

Looking from what Japan highlighted in its latest National Security Strategy, cybersecurity is definitely one of the most important areas where Japan will be investing in setting up appropriate structures and a legal framework and raising awareness.

I think that maybe the EU is slightly more advanced because it has been in the forefront of strengthening cybersecurity, by establishing a solid political and legal framework. This is something we have already learnt in Europe and can definitely share with Japan. One area where we had good exchanges is what we call FIMI, Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference. FIMI is a very important policy for the EU, which, from my personal experience and exchanges with Japanese colleagues here, is a very important area where Japan is also trying to see how to respond.

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“We need to keep engaging with China despite challenging situations”

EoE: Despite regional tensions and cybersecurity issues, Japan and China share important trading relations. In 2020, China exported 141 billion dollars to Japan (129 billion euros). Hence, how can Japan emancipate itself from its commercial dependence on China?

KP: Of course, the EU Member States, as well as Japan, are looking more at this independence: how to deal with the procurement of certain goods and materials? How to be more resilient? If you look at the European strategy on China from 2019, it clearly sets this multi-faceted approach: we are economic partners and strategic competitors, but we are also systemic rivals. Also, for Japan, China is the most important economic partner in trade. At the same time, Japan also has certain challenges with China. How to decouple? It’s the most challenging question.

We have to address many common global issues which affect everybody, such as climate change. So we have a lot of commonalities, and we need to engage with China in all areas. I think that’s the approach which should be stressed by every diplomat. You can also look at it from the local perspective once you are living in this part of the world; if you just look at the sea and see how many ships are transporting products and items, you realise how important it is to maintain the stability and the safe passage of ships. Otherwise, our economies and our societies will not be able to survive.

EoE: China released some very aggressive statements towards EU values and standards for democracy. However, despite such tensions, it’s still important to safeguard trade relations …

KP: It’s not for me to comment on how to balance the different cooperation areas, but I think that the latest visit of President Michel to China was an important event that signalled the importance of maintaining dialogue and exchanges. It also allowed the EU to stress the issues where we disagree or the challenges regarding China’s global role, especially in the Russian war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, China is a member of the UN Security Council and an important player in the international community. So it’s important to maintain this exchange.

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“Our work is to see how the situation is on the ground, not to intervene”

EoE: How does the EU Delegation usually deal with these regional tensions? How can it moderate this situation and simultaneously represent the interests of the EU?

KP: Every diplomatic representation always aims at maintaining international law and the principles of the United Nations. Now, our main task is to analyse the situation, and its developments, to understand the reasons for certain activities, and to report these activities to our Headquarters. In the EU Delegation, colleagues are teaching you always to be very thoughtful of how your actions will be perceived by the other side. This was also seen during the Covid pandemic; we Europeans still resist wearing masks, but I think most of us learned that, of course, it’s not about protecting ourselves but protecting others.

“Coming to Japan, you become more aware of this sense of responsibility for the other”

EoE: What is your unforgettable memory from working at the EU Delegation to Japan?

KP: The first very impressive thing for me was to get a different perspective of the world. Coming from Europe, you realise that though we have so many things in common, we still lack a lot of knowledge and understanding. My childhood was so much indirectly impacted by Japan: every gadget, be it a camera, a TV, my Walkman, or the PlayStation, was produced in Japan. When you come to this country, you have a better understanding of why this country was so good in developing all these technologies and how it’s possible that you have the cleanest subway stations in the world. That was my first lesson, which is still with me, and I’m trying to take as much as possible when I leave Japan. You need to come to the country to explore and experience it. You will not only have a better understanding, but you will also see how important certain things still are, which I think, from the European perspective, we are sometimes forgetting.

[This article was first published in the issue 38 of the magazine]

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