Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was previously the nation’s longest-serving foreign minister, is putting his diplomatic skills to the test again with a tricky tour of Asia and Europe, during which he will seek to set the global agenda for the months to come.
The trip, which began on Friday, is the most important yet of his premiership and comes shortly before he hosts in May leaders of the other three so-called Quad powers: the US, India and Australia. This underlines the increasingly important role Tokyo now occupies on the world stage as a strong supporter of liberal democracy and the rules-based economic order, including the multilateral trade system.
In Asia, Kishida will visit three regional powerhouses: Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. The Indonesia leg is important given that Jakarta is chairing the G20 this year and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year. In Vietnam, he will discuss that nation’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum this year.
In all three Asian stops he will rally support for Ukraine. He will also renew calls for a free and open Asia-Pacific in the face of the rise of China, including through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Japan has been at the vanguard of the 11 nations in Asia-Pacific and the Americas, including Vietnam, that signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Together they account for about 13 percent of global trade and have a combined population of about 500 million. Several other nations, including Thailand and Indonesia, are reportedly interested in joining.
Ukraine and trade talks will also dominate the European section of Kishida’s tour. His country has shown significant support for Kyiv since Moscow’s invasion, and he has spoken with President Volodymyr Zelensky on several occasions.
Japan is one of Europe’s closest like-minded partners and is genuinely concerned about the developments in Ukraine, as will be illustrated by public statements made when he visits Italy and the UK in the coming week.
Tokyo is committed to strengthening relations with its European partners in a number of areas, including enhanced political cooperation, trade and investment, development, digital transformation, climate action, research and innovation, security cooperation, and sustainable growth.
Fumio Kishida’s trip will burnish Japan’s international leadership credentials.
Ukraine aside, it will probably be international trade and the rules-based economic order that will take up the most bandwidth of all the issues on the table in Italy. Since Donald Trump’s US presidency, Japan and Europe have stepped up their leadership on this agenda, not least with the signing of the EU-Japan trade agreement. Both sides want to take stock of the implementation of this mammoth deal, which covers nations with about a third of global gross domestic product and almost 650 million people.
The EU-Japan accord took years to agree, with the scrapping of almost all duties on Japanese and European imports respectively hitting the headlines. This could be a particular boon for key EU exports to Japan such as dairy and food products, while Japan’s auto manufacturers might be big winners, too.
Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy after the US and China, and is one of Europe’s top export markets in Asia. In the EU, it is estimated that about 600,000 jobs are tied to bilateral trade, with an estimated 74,000 European firms exporting to Japan.
Beyond the numbers, however, both sides have stressed that the trade treaty is also important because it rests on “values and principles.” In part, this relates to the fact that the agreement is the first struck by Brussels that includes language about upholding the Paris climate agreement. Specifically, there is a commitment to supporting the Paris treaty by making a “positive contribution” to efforts to reduce the effects of climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
This follows a move by the European Commission to try to ensure that all EU trade deals reference the key climate deal.
Trade will also be key to the talks in London, the final stop of Kishida’s tour. The UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement was the first deal the UK struck after Brexit. It is tailored to both economies, with benefits for the digital and data, financial services, food and drink, and creative industries.
It is estimated that it could boost bilateral trade by more than £15 billion ($19 billion), and includes a strong commitment from Japan to support UK access to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In so doing, the agreement marks a closer alliance between the UK and Japan, with the two nations working closely together as they champion international trade issues.
Taken overall, Kishida’s trip will therefore burnish Japan’s international leadership credentials. In the context of the growing uncertainty about the future of the rules-based order and liberal democracy itself, these talks will help set the agenda for Germany’s presidency of the G7 this year, as well as Indonesia’s presidency of the G20, both of which will promote agendas based around a commitment to multilateralism.