The Road to Digitalisation: Strengthening EU-Japan Digital Cooperation

In May 2022, the EU and Japan decided to “join hands” and broaden their partnership on digitalisation. The significance of this digital partnership lies in its broad implementation in key aspects spanning from public institutions and digital infrastructures to digital skills for citizens and businesses. What progress has been made on the implementation of the new EU-Japan Digital Partnership and how can its impact be broadened? How will the initiative advance cooperation, as well as their respective digital environments amidst global tensions?

Pre-existing trends for digital cooperation

In recent years, the introduction of more extensive digital tools and a strong push for digital cooperation have been trending globally. The European Union (EU) has made a clear attempt to ride this new “wave”, not wishing to fall behind global competitors like the US and China. In particular, this push has led to the EU’s 2021 “Global Gateway Initiative” — the EU’s flagship connectivity initiative through which 300 billion EUR will be invested in sectors like climate, energy and digital projects — as well as the EU’s “Digital Agenda”, placing digital transparency and cybersecurity in the spotlight of the EU’s foreign policies for the next decade. In line with this, in the Indo-Pacific region the EU has launched its 2020 “EU-China Digital Dialogue” and 2022 “EU-South Korea Digital Partnership” as initiatives to stay at the forefront of digital technologies worldwide, as well as to sustain digital dialogue and cooperation with key partners in the region.

In addition, tech-savvy Japan was effectively the first non EU-member state to sign a Digital Partnership with the EU on 12 May 2022. The Partnership continued to build on the groundwork laid by past initiatives such as the 2020 “EU-Japan Connectivity Partnership” (a plan of action targeting digital connectivity via data infrastructure to promote sustainable development) and the 2019 “EU-Japan Strategic Partnership”, in which Japan has been identified as a key like-minded partner for the EU in the Indo-Pacific.   

During her visit to Japan on 1-3 October 2022, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel, met with the Japanese Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Keiko Nagaoka, so as to stress the importance of the successful implementation of the EU-Japan Digital Partnership and its projected goals. During her visit, she advocated further investments in R&D and innovation between the two allies, particularly in view of the European Commission’s 2021-2027 “Horizon Europe Framework Programme for Research and Innovation”

What’s “in” for Tokyo? 

Under Prime Minister (PM) Fumio Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administration, Japan has further advanced its efforts to fully utilise its digital capabilities, especially in the fields of innovation, trade, institutional involvement and social justice. To this end, Kishida seems to be following the footsteps of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, pursuing more efficient online-based administrative procedures and prioritising e-commerce. In particular, slow progress in digitalising Japan’s bureaucracy and institutional procedures has been a cause of frustration among the Japanese public, while gender equality has been another. The latter has specifically been a matter of concern in the digital realm, as women are often found at the centre of online harassment, proving the need for adequate frameworks to adequately protect them, also in the cyber world.

The EU-Japan Digital Partnership

The final draft of the May 2022 Digital Partnership centres around four pillars: Digital skills to boost employability; infrastructure; digital opportunities for businesses; and the digitalisation of public services.

One of the cornerstones of the Partnership is to bolster the resilience of global supply chains while boosting enterprises’ innovation through financial assistance. Another one consists of the digitalisation of public services’ procedures, effectively minimising long bureaucratic processes. Establishing secure international connectivity, along with green data infrastructures to ensure sustainability are initiatives largely anticipated, as the EU has already committed to creating secure, green data centres. Hence, the institutionalisation of common digital security standards to protect netizens’ data is high on the agenda for the EU, but also for Japan.

This ambitious plan is accompanied by clearly outlined measures to be applied in public policy. As innovation stems from collaboration, scientists in both the EU and Japan are committed to working together on bilateral projects concerning the development of new digital tools aiming at enhancing cybersecurity. By improving the usability of the Japanese Cyber/Physical Security Framework (CPSF), information related to cyber threats will be shared. 

In accordance with the EU’s vision for trustworthy Artificial Intelligence (AI), AI development and ethical involvement will be at the forefront of EU-Japan cooperation, proposing practical initiatives to broaden the field.  Tokyo and Brussels aim to cooperatively defend their shared interests, such as cybersecurity, privacy and the standardisation of legal frameworks in international fora. The smooth implementation of said strategies will be on the agenda of their newly established annual ministerial-level meeting to assess the overall progress of the EU-Japan Digital Partnership and to adapt existing initiatives or introduce new ones where needed.

Future Perspectives

The Digital Partnership addresses points such as public administration, common standards, lack of proper digital infrastructure, civilian digital illiteracy and effective utilisation of Horizon Europe. To improve public administration procedures, advancing e-governance will allow for further digitalisation and simplification of relevant proceedings, while investments in digital infrastructure in cybersecurity will be essential. To enhance their digital initiative’s implementation in particular, “Horizon Europe” can serve as a useful tool and funding mechanism, bringing together expertise in a variety of fields such as cybersecurity. As for projects to be implemented under the EU’s “Global Gateway” initiative, the focus should be on stricter security protocols that will protect sensitive data, as well as secure users’ privacy.

The EU will need to align itself with its member states, so as to stand united and adopt concrete, commonly shared security standards at the national, pan-European and international level, for instance through the “INDICO partnership”. Strengthening Japan’s and the EU’s resilience and operational capacity in preventing cyber attacks against corporations will be vital on their path towards further trustworthy digitalisation. At the same time, this could save EU and Japanese enterprises capital, which could be invested elsewhere since their networks will become more secure and less prone to malicious software stealing their data. Moreover, enhancing the digital literacy among their citizens will be both essential and achievable, through training, upgrading the academic curriculum and large sensibilisation campaigns. This could assist in  further tackling cyber bullying and gender discrimination on the worldwide web. Improving the algorithms filtering out hate speech comments could be another effective measure.

However, the main weakness of the Partnership has to be its “non-binding” clause in the text that may “make or break” it. The final document explicitly mentions that “the Partnership is not intended to create any rights or obligations under international or domestic law. It does not have any financial implications on either side”. Hence there are no legal consequences tied to the realisation of the partnership’s goals, bearing the risk for them not to be met in full or to stay “at the bottom of a bureaucrat’s shelf”. If that were to be the case, how will the EU be able to push its Member States to actively realise the Partnership and speed up the related decision-making processes?

Unfortunately, the initiative lacks the publicity it should have received while some main questions remain unanswered: How can the public become better informed of its contents and how can citizens benefit from the agreement? The Partnership remains human-centric at its core, involving the digital education of the general population. In that sense, the lack of effective public communication may have minimised its impact long before its official launch. Thus, calling upon a better communication strategy is key. 

As a flagship initiative, the EU-Japan Digital Partnership reinforces both the “EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy” and Japan’s concept of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)”. Both strategies involve various types of investments and projects in the region, including digital infrastructure, cooperation with third countries, and improving digital connectivity. However, months after the initiative was launched, the “appetite” to actively engage in joint cooperation and concrete digital projects seems not to be running at full speed yet. Despite other more pressing concerns, such as the looming global energy crisis, skyrocketing living expenses and the war in Ukraine, it would be wise not to linger on for too long and to make the Partnership a priority by pushing its agenda. After all, digitalisation connects crucial aspects of the much-needed green transition, sustainable development and digital connectivity through safe networks. The ever-more digitally connected world and the internet as a new arena for (cyber) warfare make the need for effective partnerships imperative. 

The strong and long-existing partnership between the EU and Japan can serve as a strong foundation for connectivity and joint action in securing a safe digital environment for all and in strengthening the fight against cyber attacks. The EU-Japan Digital Partnership certainly serves as a first good step in the right direction.

Author: Eirini Boulia, EIAS Junior Researcher 

Photo credits: Pexels