As China tensions loom, Japan, EU vow to seal EPA by year’s end

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The leaders of Japan and the European Union pledged Friday at their annual meeting to conclude a bilateral free trade deal by the end of the year and expressed concerns about rising tensions in the East and South China seas.

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“We agreed to accelerate our negotiations on the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, aiming to reach broad agreement by the end of the year with an emphasis on both speed and substance,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said after his summit with visiting European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

A statement released after their joint news conference said the leaders “have entrusted our negotiations with the mandate to settle the outstanding differences with a view to reaching agreement encompassing all the key issues preferably by the end of 2015.”

The joint statement was the first to mention a time frame for the EPA.

The trade liberalization talks started in April 2013 with the aim of eliminating or reducing tariffs. The latest round was held last month in Tokyo.

Total trade between Japan and the EU came to about ¥15 trillion in 2013, according to the Foreign Ministry. The EU is Japan’s third-largest trading partner, and Japan is the seventh-largest for the EU.

While emphasizing that trade and investment remain “an anchor” in bilateral ties, Tusk said the two countries are also enhancing cooperation on security.

“This is on the backdrop of Japan’s own review of its security policies, with the aim of becoming a more proactive contributor to peace,” Poland’s former prime minister said.

“Japan is already providing concrete support to the European Union’s crisis management missions in Africa. Our navies have carried out a number of joint counterpiracy exercises in the West Indian Ocean,” Tusk noted, expressing hope to see Japan’s “full-fledged” participation in EU crisis management missions.

On the security situation in East Asia, the leaders agreed that “disputes must be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law,” Tusk said. “We discussed the needs to build peace and security and to boost regional cooperation in East Asia.”

Japan and the EU also “continue to observe the situation in the East and South China Sea and are concerned by any unilateral actions that change the status quo and increase tensions,” the joint statement said in an apparent reference to China.

“The safety of navigation is essential for peaceful and sustainable development,” the statement continued. “We urge all parties to clarify the basis of their claims based on international law, and to refrain from unilateral actions, including the threat or use of force and coercion.”

Speaking to the Japanese media in Brussels on Tuesday before heading to Tokyo, Tusk was reportedly critical of “construction activities” in the South China Sea, indicating China’s recent efforts to build up submerged reefs via land reclamation would complicate the resolution of disputes.

“Some activities, so-called construction activities on the sea . . . will make it much more difficult to solve the problem, to find a legal status for this area,” Tusk reportedly said, adding that a peaceful solution must be found.

As for promoting people-to-people exchanges, Abe announced a new program to invite 150 students from Europe within fiscal 2015.

The Japanese and the EU leaders also agreed to shore up bilateral cooperation on a wide range of issues, including the Ukraine crisis, terrorism and climate change.

Tusk took over the European Council presidency in December, succeeding Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy, while Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, took the helm of the European Commission in November, succeeding Portugal’s Jose Manuel Barroso.

© 2015 THE JAPAN TIMES (TOKYO) / DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC

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