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Indo-Pacific

EU invites Japan's Motegi to explain 'free and open Indo-Pacific'

Tokyo joins bloc-wide meeting for first time as Europe's focus turns to Asia

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, inset, attended the meeting of the EU's Foreign Affairs Council via videoconference. (Photo courtesy of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

TOKYO -- Japan's top diplomat Toshimitsu Motegi was invited to address the European Union's Foreign Affairs Council Monday  -- a first for a Japanese foreign minister -- where he briefed the members on his country's efforts toward a "free and open Indo-Pacific."

The foreign minister described it as "an inclusive concept, open to cooperation with any country which shares the same values and vision."

His message comes at a time when multiple European capitals, increasingly skeptical of China, are crafting their own strategies for the Indo-Pacific region, with Germany weighing a possible naval visit to Japan.

"The world has become increasingly complex and uncertain, with a drastic shift in the global power balance," Motegi said via videoconference. "In the Indo-Pacific region, there are various challenges," he said, pointing to tensions in the East and South China Seas, issues of democracy and human rights, as well as the mounting infrastructure-linked debt burdens on developing countries.

Without referring to China by name, Motegi called for Tokyo and Brussels to cooperate on maritime security and strengthening multilateral trade.

The two sides agreed to work together on a framework to achieve their mutual goals of net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

In response, the EU foreign ministers "expressed understanding and support for the importance of ensuring a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific," the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.

The Foreign Affairs Council brings together foreign ministers from each of the 27 EU member countries, along with other cabinet-level officials depending on the agenda. It began talks last year on drawing up a shared Indo-Pacific strategy. Japan, which first proposed the free and open Indo-Pacific concept, was invited to offer advice.

The EU's interest in greater involvement in the region comes amid an increasing distrust of China's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the months after the disease was first confirmed in China, many European countries suffered devastating outbreaks. Josep Borrell, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy -- essentially the bloc's foreign minister -- has accused Chinese Communist Party officials of making the crisis worse by concealing crucial information.

Borrell has said that the EU's political model of democracy and respect for human rights is being "contested." A document released in December called China a "systemic rival" and said Brussels should work closely with Washington to "support democratic progress in Asia." But China also is a key market for European corporations. In the same month, the EU and China concluded negotiations on a sweeping investment agreement.

Individual EU members have come out with their own Indo-Pacific strategies.

Policy guidelines adopted by Germany in September state that the region is "becoming the key to shaping the international order in the 21st century." Berlin said it supports increased European engagement in the Indo-Pacific to support expansion of free trade and enforcement of universal human rights.

The guidelines express some concern about China, including the risk of developing countries taking on debt for infrastructure projects under Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. The initiative has been "internationally criticized for paying insufficient attention to sustainability criteria," the document says.

France's strategy, released in 2019, calls for strengthening relationships with partners including Japan, Australia and India. It positions the Indo-Pacific as a "priority" for France, which has territories in the region including New Caledonia in the South Pacific and Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

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