Recherche Carnet de chercheur Oliviero FRATTOLILLO


Japan-EU diplomatic dialogue in historical perspective


The political scenario

During the Cold War years, the bipolar system that resulted in the Japanese-European response (the “dependent variable”) was definitely the systemic variable (the “independent variable”). In the pure realist anarchy, especially related to the first bipolar phase, the transpacific axis became, in fact, the expression of a bilateralism within which high political issues were gradually adding those of low politics. The bilateralism and the economism of the Yoshida Doctrine inevitably affected the quality of Japan-EU diplomatic relations, which were often sacrificed to overcome trade issues. Nevertheless, in the long-term perspective, Japan successfully dealt with a series of questions concerning its relations with Europe thanks to its low-profile approach and its pragmatic nationalism - a combination of ethical relativism and cultural particularism, which is a distinctive feature of Japanese foreign policy. It prevented Tokyo from relying on a set of fixed principles, inducing it to pursue national interests opportunistically, conforming to the international conditions of the moment. This pragmatic nationalism is an intrinsic cultural element and may therefore be considered a constant factor. Japan was often criticized for its exponential economic growth, for which it seemed willing to act unscrupulously. In 1960, De Gaulle supposedly dismissed Ikeda as a mere “transistor salesman”, scandalising the Japanese. By the 1970s, however, Brussels made some tepid attempts to consider, to some extent, the possibility of cooperating with Tokyo in managing an ever more interdependent economy on the world stage. Then, during the 1980s, Japan and Europe were much closer to become partners on a political and partly strategic level. As it is evident, the weight of the structure of the international system was particularly significant in the lack of a diplomatic dialogue, but the various recorded attempts at diplomatic dialogue generated a new way of understanding. Japan-EU relations clearly demonstrated that the two actors had been conditioned by mutual perceptions that, in addition to the constraints caused by the Yoshida doctrine, considerably reduced their diplomatic space. Furthermore, the two constructed their interaction upon their own identities and interests. The strengthening of this bilateralism, in fact, proceeded hand in hand with the political dialogue institutionalization process that is built through “modes of understanding, accepted responses and channels for communications”. In other words, the interaction opportunities provided by “a single moment” encouraged the creation of what Gilson defined “the habit of interaction” between the two parts, which was gradually formalized into a regular channel for dialogue. This process took place within specific “international regimes” (in Krasner’s argument). This occurred, specifically, within an approach tending to subordinate the structures to the processes, emphasizing the role of decision-making procedures and of the expectations of the actors involved in a given area of international relations. As such, the identity discourse is also a constant element, but it was probably more clearly imposed by the New Millennium international agenda, which saw Japan face the evolving challenges generated by globalization, as well as its emergence as a global civilian power.

Unlike the identity constructed by the EU, which relies more on theoretical elements such as values, the US constructed a more practical social identity in relation East Asia, tending to focus primarily on a ‘productive partnership’. This prompted Japan to accept US involvement in regional hard issues, given that the inclusion of another representative of Western values, such as the EU, was quite unnecessary. After all, the Americans do not seem to have interpreted the creation of ASEM as a threat to their global leadership. Indeed, it could be argued that Washington paid little attention to the developments of the forum. Though official speeches and the political rhetoric seem to indicate the opposite, the real data would suggest that Japan institutionalized the notion that the EU’s role in the regional hard issues must not exceed the threshold of dialogue. The image that a state builds of another state, or of a group of states, and according to which they act, is dependent on the social identities constructed by them, and the level at which they are perceived. Besides this, the set of values, norms and ideas at the basis of the European cultural substratum cannot be transferred, or simply “spread”, in a regional context marked by such deep cultural differences. Regardless of the idea of a world government, the emphasis on the EU’s projection as a model of regional integration is potentially counterproductive. The fact that EU policy in Japan lacks consistency means it would be awkward to use it as a model to be followed. Priority should probably be given to contributing to the resolution and prevention of conflicts in the East Asia region rather than to an attempt to encourage a process of integration. In the end, it could be argued that the role that ASEM can play in furthering the dialogue between the two actors actively contributes to the enhancement of mutual understanding among the many different members of the forum. In the security field, despite the inherent limitations of a soft partnership, significant opportunities are afforded by the EU-Japan cooperation, especially in the field of conflict prevention and mainly based on soft power levers, which are specifically declined in terms of human security concerns.

The role played by the mutual perceptions and misperceptions turned out to be an aspect that only concerned the framing of the matter. The core issue of this argument is twofold, since it regards both identity (specifically, the perception of European actorness in Japan) and geopolitical matters (in so far as it concerns the EU’s reluctance to get involved in the regional security issues). According to Pacheco Pardo, the EU constructed a triple identity towards East Asia, especially through ASEM and the two main regional powers, Japan and China. Since the identity that an actor builds while interacting with another actor, as well as the perception of the latter, is what essentially determines the relationship between the two, the EU’s collective and social identity would have prevented it from getting involved in the management of East Asian hard political issues. This is because the EU, not only identifies itself as a model of democracy and human rights through its corporate identity, but also proposes itself as a power capable of taking a leading role in countering non-military threats through multilateral measures.

The three “images” suggested by Hughes are actually the result of the concurrence of events and of structuring factors that denoted trade problems on the surface, or dysfunctions generated by the systemic variable, but that were fundamentally based on a much more complex and inherent divergence of two universes of values and different political cultures. Zhao’s theory on “relation rationality” and the Japanese ethical notion of “relational coexistence” may help to inscribe and construct modern historical relations between Japan and Europe into a narrative, in the words of Gluck, by bringing “the outside in”.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we witnessed the end of the ideological metanarrative on which the entire Cold War historical discourse had been built, as well as the dissolution of the infamous “friend-enemy” dichotomy within the borders of the specific East-West scheme, and the decline of the American hegemony that - in Kupchan’s eyes - “lost its compass”. Huntington’s 1993 thesis in response to Fukuyama’s argument regarding the “end of history” replaced the quintessence of the bipolar antagonism, alerting us of alleged new evidence: the differences between the seven or eight world civilizations would have caused, among other things, “fault line conflicts” destined to severely impact on the new international equilibrium. It could, however, be asserted that during the 1980s Huntington’s thesis already experienced a cultural response with the discourse on “Asian values” of the Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysian Mahathir Mohamad under the slogan “Look East”. It could be said, although perhaps reductively, that this new perspective aims to emphasize the limits of the supposed universality of Western culture, but no matter how seemingly paradoxical, Huntington’s and Mahathir’s approaches have much more in common than it may seem. Actually, although the two theses are opposed to each other in terms of political orientation, their relationship - as noted by Iwabuchi – “can be described as a collusive interplay, as they share much in their essentializing of the cultural/civilizational differences between West and East”. Other authors converged on this same position, albeit implicitly, such as Barr, according to whom “there is ample evidence that, like Lee, Mahathir’s advocacy of ‘Asian values’ is based on a mixture of political expediency and longstanding, deep-seated impulses and beliefs”. Japan occupies a very significant position within this discourse, as it was the country that, in Mahathir’s eyes, would have led “the Asian cultural alternative”, thanks to its natural affinity with other Asian nations, while to Huntington it “is a civilization that is a state”, with a unique position vis-à-vis the West. This bi-dimensional character of Japanese political culture in relation to the outside world has put the country in a unique geo-cultural position whereby it is able to “[reconcile] tensions between East and West”. This emerged with greater clarity in the post-bipolar years, given the changed global geopolitical landscape, but Japan’s ability to act as an intermediate pole between East and West is equally discernible in the history of its diplomatic efforts with Europe during the Cold War years.