Against Moscow, Brussels sees an ally in Tokyo

EU and Japanese leaders on Thursday presented a united front against Russia’s war on Ukraine as well as countering China’s challenge to the world order.

In their first joint trip to Asia, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, the presidents of the European Council and European Commission, skipped the EU’s biggest trading partner in the region China and opted instead to visit Japan, showcasing what Brussels sees as a rare example of partnership among like-minded democracies in the Indo-Pacific.

In a press conference, von der Leyen noted that Russia now is “the most direct threat to the world order” with its “barbaric war against Ukraine. And its worrying pact with China and their call for ‘new’ — and very much arbitrary — international relations.”

Stressing that Japan was among the first countries to divert natural gas to the EU after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, von der Leyen thanked Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for the “admirable” decision, adding: “We will not forget it.”

In a joint statement, Japan and the EU warned that “Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked military aggression against independent and sovereign Ukraine grossly violates international law and the principles of the UN Charter and undermines European and global security and stability.”

Amid Beijing’s deepening ties with Moscow, the EU leaders were keen to portray Japan as their one true partner in the Indo-Pacific, as reported by POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook. Japan is one of the few Asian countries that joined the West in imposing sanctions on Russia, with the Kremlin responding by personally sanctioning Kishida.

“Japan is part of the core group of countries that have imposed tough sanctions on Russia,” von der Leyen said. “Like the European Union, Japan understands what is at stake here. Not just Ukraine’s future. Not just Europe’s future. But the future of a rules-based world order. This makes it all the more essential for like-minded partners like the EU and Japan to strengthen their relations. That is why we are here today. And we have taken some important steps forward.”

Von der Leyen and Michel’s visit is the latest in a series of leaders’ trips to Japan and India, in an attempt to sway both countries away from Russia’s sphere of influence. Last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made his first trip to Asia since his appointment and skipped China, heading instead to Japan. At the end of April, von der Leyen traveled to New Delhi for a two-day visit, meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss trade, climate and digital technology.

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.