The recently launched EU–Japan Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure (EU–Japan Connectivity Partnership) signals a new stage for EU–Japan infrastructure cooperation.

This agreement follows on the heels of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) that took effect on 1 February 2019. But this new initiative will go beyond the bilateral EU–Japan focus of the EPA and SPA agreements.

It ambitiously aims to connect the two poles at either ends of Eurasia, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasised in his speech at the EU–Asia Connectivity Forum.

EU–Japan cooperation on connectivity between East Asia and Europe is to be based on shared democratic values, the rule of law and human rights. It will foster ‘quality infrastructure’ projects that physically link transport networks, digital service connectivity in cyber space and the connectivity of people and ideas by increased people-to-people exchange in fields such as education, culture and tourism.

Yet, despite these ambitions, the partnership agreement is vague in terms of what concrete projects might materialise. There are also questions regarding the motivations of both actors as they sought to rapidly launch this agreement.

The strategic calculations of Japan and the EU and their motivation to start this connectivity partnership become apparent when looking at the geographical focus of the EU–Japan Connectivity Partnership. One of the main drivers appears to be in reaction to China and its own ambitious connectivity focused Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

At the official announcement of the EU–Japan Connectivity Partnership, Prime Minister Abe and the then president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker emphasised the Western Balkans, the Indo-Pacific and Africa as the geographical spaces of special concern for the new partnership. The agreement itself also mentions Eastern Europe and Central Asia. These are almost exactly the same geographical regions that China’s BRI focuses on.

Despite the fact that China is and remains an important economic partner for Japan and the European Union, both have noticed that China is steadily increasing its political and economic influence in these regions.

Consequently, the EU’s perception of China has dramatically changed from China as a promising future market to officially labelling China a ‘strategic rival’ in March 2019.

For the European Union specifically, China’s growing influence in Central and Eastern Europe has obviously become an urgent issue. In recent years, China has successfully enhanced cooperation with countries in the vicinity of the European Union and increasingly also within its membership. An example of the latter is the creation of the ‘Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries’ (China–CEEC) initiative and deeper cooperation with individual EU member states such as Italy and Greece.

Yet, benign neglect has characterised European and Japanese connectivity cooperation up until now, giving China considerable advantage in fostering connectivity between Europe, East Asia and the regions in between. Both the European Union and Japan hope the new initiative will change this.

The European Union hopes to claim a position where it can proactively shape the way Europe connects with Asia instead of only reacting to China’s initiatives. With Japan as a partner, the European Union can show that everyone in Europe could benefit from increasing European-Asia connectivity between both regions without being solely dependent on China.

The agreement with the European Union also offers many opportunities for Japan to not only shape China’s growing global influence, but also to further promote its own ambitious geopolitical alternative to the BRI, Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative (FOIP). Unlike China, Japan has so far missed the chance to become an active part of the increasing connectivity between East Asia on the one end and Europe on the other.

But with its economic power, Japan is still able to offer an alternative to China on the East Asian end, while Europe serves as the partner on the other end of the connectivity project. Cooperation with the European Union might allow Japan to enhance the somewhat nebulous FOIP initiative with concrete partnerships, cooperation and agreements not only in Europe, but also in regions such as Africa.

The new partnership agreement appears to be a mutually beneficial response of the European Union and Japan to China’s increasing influence in Asia, Europe and Africa from which all sides might benefit.

To really reach this goal, the still rather vague agreement needs to be filled with concrete projects and clear strategies and goals. More financial resources also need to be forthcoming.

Hard work remains to be done if this new EU–Japan Connectivity Partnership is to become more than the mere statement of aspirations that currently populate the connectivity infrastructure policy space.