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International relations

Japan and EU name Taiwan in joint statement for first time

Leaders also discuss China's maritime expansion, Senkakus and Olympics

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks with European leaders via video link on May 27. (Photo courtesy of Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office)

TOKYO -- Japan and the European Union affirmed the "importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait" in a statement Thursday, marking the first time the two sides have jointly spoken about the self-ruled island.

The statement came after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga held an online summit with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Japan and the EU last held a bilateral summit two years ago, under then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

"We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues," the leaders said in the statement.

The remark on Taiwan echoes Suga's joint statement with U.S. President Joe Biden last month, as well as the statement by Group of Seven foreign ministers from this month. Japan hopes its statement with the EU will help pave the way for a discussion on Taiwan at the G-7 summit in the U.K. next month.

In addition to Taiwan, Suga, Michel and von der Leyen agreed to launch the Japan-EU Green Alliance to advance cooperation on climate and environmental issues. The two sides will work together on developing decarbonization technologies and assisting emerging countries in Asia with energy transition.

The two sides said they "support the holding of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 in a safe and secure manner this summer."

The Thursday summit also focused on the EU's first formal Indo-Pacific strategy, set to be finalized by September. An outline published by the bloc in April stopped short of explicitly criticizing China for expansionist moves in the region.

Suga during the meeting discussed how China has flouted international law in waters surrounding the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu. EU leaders said they will take a united stance and speak out against activities that undermine a free and open international order.

The leaders in their statement affirmed that they "strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions" in the East and South China seas. Tokyo hopes that greater involvement in Asia by the EU would provide a boon to Japan's national security.

The EU has traditionally been more reserved in its pushback against Beijing than Japan or the U.S., partly due to its extensive economic ties with -- and geographic distance from -- China. Taiwan had also not been among the bloc's top diplomatic priorities.

But the EU has been increasingly alarmed by human rights concerns in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region, as well as Chinese censorship regarding the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic.

"The EU views itself as a community of democracies," said Hokkaido University professor Ken Endo.

"There's an opening for diplomatic efforts to turn the EU's sights to Taiwan by encouraging the bloc to defend democracy," he said.

Europe is also increasingly interested in the Indo-Pacific market. It projects a dramatic expansion in the region's middle class by 2030, and worries that ignoring Chinese activities that undermine maritime rules there could squeeze the growing market. Roughly 40% of shipments to and from Europe pass through the South China Sea.

Still, some European actors remain wary of antagonizing China. Germany's auto industry relies on China for roughly 40% of global turnover. Eastern European countries also have strong economic ties to China, including through Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative.

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