Green Trilateral Cooperation: A Next Step for the EU’s Strategic Partnership with Japan and the Republic of Korea

The summit on 16 March 2023 between the Japanese and Republic of Korea (ROK) heads of state was seen as a milestone in relations between the two powers. Such a thawing could present a unique opportunity for Japan and Korea’s strategic partners and see the establishment of a structured trilateral relationship on green cooperation with the EU. This EIAS opinion piece explores how a trilateral promises to strengthen current rapprochement efforts and complements ongoing measures being taken to achieve each actor's strategic goals in the green transition.

Pushing for a new chapter in Japan-ROK relations 

On 16 March 2023, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol held a bilateral summit meeting in Tokyo. Yoon’s visit is the first by a South Korean president since the December 2011 meeting between Yoshihiko Noda and Lee Myung-bak. It followed ten days after the Yoon administration launched its proposed plan to create a public foundation funded by private-sector companies as a means to resolve a long-running dispute on financially compensating people who were forced to work in Japanese factories and mines during World War II. The bilateral summit was a major achievement to see so early in the tenure of both countries’ leaders and holds the promise of a closer and potentially more durable partnership between Seoul and Tokyo. Whilst there is already speculation that such a thaw remains tentative at best, a normalisation of Japan-Korea relations is extremely valuable and should be fostered. A spotlight so far has been placed on the role security concerns have played in stabilising the relationship, and in extension the opportunities for greater collaboration with dominant security partners such as the US. Yet these will not offer sufficient foundations for a long term regional security architecture, nor does a focus on the military aspects recognise Japan and Korea’s full spectrum of challenges and ambitions. In this respect, one of the more promising opportunities available through a renaissance in cooperation between the two east asian powerhouses is engaging with the transition to a climate-neutral economy

Notably one of the few deliverables of the bilateral summit was the launching of two future partnership foundations, announced at a news conference on the sidelines by the heads of the Japan Business Federation and the Federation of Korean Industries. Anticipated to be set up around June 2023, both organisations made commitments to contribute around 750,000 USD to each of their respective foundations to advance cooperation in resolving common issues. These include decarbonization and energy security, as well as promoting youth exchanges. The establishment of these foundations offers an encouraging wake up call regarding the meaningfully impacting potential available through a resetting of diplomatic relations. This especially when compared to the other commitments made that day, such as the overdue decision to lift export curbs on three key chemicals in the semiconductor chip making process. Despite reducing costs, this was already being mitigated by greater diversification and the fostering of domestic alternatives. Meanwhile Seoul’s reciprocal decision to withdraw its related complaint filed against Japan at the World Trade Organization was primarily symbolic. It is within this spirit of cooperation on common issues that the EU, a traditionally economically orientated actor and major trading partner of both Korea and Japan, can help advance the coordination of green industrial policies between all three players. The task is now to develop and sustain good relations going forward and define parallel actions to be taken. The green strategies already pursued by Korea, Japan, and the EU offer a common vision of the future,  what is now needed is a platform through which to facilitate this.

Seasoned partners

Many of the pieces for developing a trilateral framework for cooperation that joins three of the world’s most advanced green transition players are already in place. The most significant of these is that the EU, Japan, and Korea are included in the handful of countries that have made achieving net zero by 2050 a binding legal commitment. On top of this all three have developed comprehensive strategies for the green transition, with the European Green Deal being the first of these. Presented in December 2019 it provided a roadmap with actions to boost the efficient use of resources by moving to a clean and circular economy, as well as actions to stop climate change, revert biodiversity loss, and cut pollution. A year later, in December 2020, Japan presented its new Green Growth Strategy in line with Carbon Neutrality in 2050. The strategy is specifically designated as an industrial policy, and it promotes the creation of a virtuous cycle of economic growth and environmental protection together with the business community. Meanwhile in July 2020 The Korean New Deal was announced, based on two main policies: the Digital New Deal and Green New Deal. The three main deliverables of the Green New Deal will be the green transition of infrastructures, low carbon and decentralised energy, as well as innovation in the ‘Green Industry.’ 

A key commonality between all three strategies is the focus on industrial transformation as the driver of change, where a focus is placed on the opportunities for growth, jobs, and technological leadership available through a green transition. In many ways the Japan and ROK strategies act as an extension of the developmentalism policymaking that launched both of their economies. In turn the EU’s Green Deal Industrial Plan presented in February 2023 is not only a response to the US Inflation Reduction Act, but a signal that putting European businesses in the driving seat is a clear priority. The EU meanwhile is no stranger to bilateral cooperation with both the ROK and Japan. South Korea is the only country in the world to have economic, digital, security, and political agreements with the EU in effect. These consist of the Strategic Partnership and 2010 Framework Agreement, the 2011 Free Trade Agreement and the 2014 Framework Participation Agreement for EU crisis management operations, as well as a Digital Partnership Agreement in November 2022. Structured bilateral engagement in green cooperation has also been a key feature of the relationship. The 7th Republic of Korea–EU Joint Scientific and Technological (S&T) Cooperation Committee Meeting held in February 2022 saw a reiteration of both parties’ interests in furthering collaboration in developing green technologies such as hydrogen. A few months later at the 18th meeting of the Joint Committee between the European Union and South Korea in June 2022, both parties discussed the perspective of establishing a EU-Republic of Korea Green Partnership, designed to strengthen the implementation of the Paris Agreement, supported by a transition to a circular economy and clean energy. The EU-Japanese relationship meanwhile is anchored on two foundational documents: the Joint Declaration of 1991 and the Action Plan for EU-Japan Cooperation of 2001, whilst more recently the two have agreed a Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2019 and a Digital Partnership Agreement in March 2022. The EU and Japan’s Economic Partnership Agreement entered into force on 1 February 2019, becoming the world’s largest bilateral free trade deal, creating an open trade zone covering nearly one-third of global GDP. The EU and Japan also are already engaging bilaterally through a range of forums, including an annual summit of leaders and an inter-parliamentary body. In May 2021 the EU and Japan committed to take steps towards a green alliance through a declaration in which both sides reaffirmed their strong determination to create climate neutral, biodiversity-friendly, circular and resource efficient economies to achieve green growth. Given timing, the priority area for cooperation on the agenda was the energy transition. Indeed the first concrete action to come out of EU-Japan green collaboration has been a Memorandum of Cooperation on Hydrogen signed in December 2022, with an explicit aim to advance interactions between stakeholders and exchanges of expertise. 

The majority of these agreements centre around creating the conditions for an exchanging of information as well as synchronising of national policy and regulation. In practice these have found success mostly in science and technology research collaborations or expert consultations, but when it comes to translating this into actionable policy progress has been limited. Promoting a more structured trilateral cooperation framework which includes dialogues at various levels promises to inject new energy into the steps these governments take for addressing green issues, whilst having multiple powerful actors in the same rooms makes it easier to tackle challenges such as harmonising international standards. A trilateral approach to these partnerships could also help address issues for any third countries, such as the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) which taxes carbon emitted during the production of carbon intensive goods that are entering the European Union. In February 2023 the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy launched its EU Trade Issues Task Force holding a meeting specifically on pan-ministerial EU CBAM (Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism) Response. This highlighted growing concerns for the need of a more rapid (the task force meets once every quarter), and comprehensive response channel beyond conventional consultative groups such as the Korea-EU FTA Trade Committee. Setting up trilateral relations would offer to integrate older dialogue mechanisms but also provide a platform for newer ones, cutting communication time and providing essential channels between stakeholders. 

A green trilateral: what can we expect?

By making headway on these issues through trilateral engagement, the EU, ROK, and Japan could develop a blueprint for green cooperation on an intra-national scale. This form of international relations would see a continuous process of interactions between a variety of stakeholders from all three countries with discussions, actors, and outcomes centred around green growth. Within the Asia-Pacific region there already exist two relevant trilaterals which can offer a helpful direction. These are the China-ROK-Japan Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) and US-ROK-Japan security trilateral. TCS carries out collaboration in an incredibly wide range of areas – its activities have however become reduced since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The security trilateral with the US remains more narrow in its focus on security, but serves as a model for vibrant diplomatic engagement with notable results such as a side event at the NATO Summit in June 2022, and the Phnom Penh Statement released around the East Asia Summit in November 2022. Both these cooperation frameworks present a variety of tried and tested diplomatic tools that can be used to develop the necessary preparatory actions including summits, working groups and committees, as well as joint declarations or the adaptation of codes of responsibility that will help pave the way for more meaningful collaboration. These could be supported through existent mechanisms for financing policy such as funds or MoU’s between banks, as well as the capacity all three states hold in mobilising private investment. As a first step, setting up trilateral dialogue to cooperate on energy security and energy supply chains could draw significant appeal. The REPowerEU launched in May 2022 as a response to overdependence on Russian fossil fuels highlighted coordination with gas buyers such as Japan, China and Korea as a key next step. 

The development of a green trilateral is, however, not without its challenges. Balancing China’s response to greater collaboration between the EU, Japan, and ROK will be critical given all three states still face issues of significant dependence, particularly when it comes to rare earths and other components that form part of their green strategies. When it comes to Korean public opinion, establishing a working relationship with Japan may still face strong scepticism. In a poll by Gallup Korea, 64% of respondents said there was no need to rush to improve ties with Japan if there was not a significant change in its attitude. According to an Asahi Shimbun survey after the Yoon visit to Japan, whilst 63% of respondents evaluated the summit as a significant step in the direction of repairing ties, 57% expect ‘things will remain the same as now’. In addition, the unresolved issue of the Japan-Korea Joint Development Zone risks becoming a maritime flashpoint as the 1974 treaty which manages the overlapping claims to the natural resources within the agreed area gets closer to expiring. Meanwhile members of the academic community have questioned the prudence behind pursuing a green industrial policy as an adequate solution to the climate crisis, with many proponents of degrowth advising that the largest economies will actually have to shrink to a sustainable level instead of pursuing their current path if the world is to meet such targets. Others see the focus on hydrogen which is a key proponent in the transition strategies of the EU, Japan and ROK, as a major gamble particularly in a world where 95% of current production is fossil-fuel based. 

The true impacts of these factors however remains to be seen. Instead the immediate challenge and centre of analytical focus so far, both in Europe and in China, has been on the long term durability of Japan and Korea’s reconciliation and future cooperation. That the summit went ahead despite longstanding public opposition offers encouragement that Korean as well as Japanese leadership could be prepared to overcome national agenda’s and embrace a new multilateral form of international relations. Establishing the mechanisms for cooperation is an instrumental step in moving forward and achieving this, and one which can set an encouraging trend within the global community, needing to set aside its differences and engage with issues that go beyond borders. The EU’s track record of cooperation with both the ROK and Japan should act as a binding that promotes a closer and sustainable partnership between all three actors. Pushing for trilateral cooperation with Japan and Korea is an opportunity for the EU to take its strategic partnerships a step further and play a role in coordinating like minded world actors towards a climate neutral future.

Author: Philip Chennery, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo credits: Pixabay