During the early years of this century, historian Timothy Garton Ash, in his 2004 book titled "Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West," argues that the United States and Europe have about 20 years more to control the levers of global governance, before they will need to cede power to China and other rising states.
Now the U.S. and Europe, still smarting from the aftereffects of the 2008 Lehman shock and the Euro crisis in the 2010s, are introverted; China promotes the "One Belt, One Road" international infrastructure investment initiative, aspiring to return to the center of the world. History is moving toward the direction Garton Ash predicted, even at a higher speed.
Is this change inevitable? According to economic historian Angus Maddison, in 1820 China's share of the world's gross domestic product was 32.9 percent, while India's was 16 percent and the West and Japan combined at 28 percent. In 1973, those figures were upside down at 4.6 percent, 3.1 percent and 58.7 percent, respectively. Then again in 2030, China's share is projected to be 23.8 percent, India 10.4 percent and the West and Japan 36.4 percent. After two centuries, the world appears to be returning to an old norm.
These economic trends are not a problem themselves. Global disparity is shrinking, poverty in China and India dwindling, and there must remain ways to reciprocally benefit countries even if their weights have changed. The problem resides in politics that straddle the internal and the external.
Externally, China, a rising dragon, increasingly leans toward authoritarian centralization and human rights violations. Its implication is that China's power will be projected on global governance, media, education and other arenas, and the world risks being colored by Chinese-style authoritarianism.
Internally and more seriously, the political situation of advanced democracies is deteriorating. In particular, the United Kingdom and the United States, the hegemons of the 19th and 20th centuries, have scored own goals by voting for Brexit and electing Donald Trump as U.S. president. In continental Europe, too, as the so-called forces of populism grow, the political axis is moving toward the xenophobic right. It is safe to say that the liberal international order faces a crisis.
It is in this context that, the partnership agreements between Japan and the European Union signed in July this year have to be nurtured toward the right direction. A change in economic weight may be seen as unavoidable, yet it does not automatically lead to the political degradation of the West, which can still be checked, or even turned around.
Of the twin pillars of economic and strategic partnership agreements (EPA and SPA), the latter promotes cooperation in a wide range of areas including the environment, national security, data protection and developmental aid, based on the mutually shared liberal democratic values. In light of global trends today, we should not underestimate the potential of this partnership. We have to fight together against moves that unilaterally erode a variety of global norms and practices in such areas as human rights, rule of law, labor and environmental standards. Europe is one of few partners capable of shouldering this task.
The EPA will form a mega-free trade area that shares 28 percent of global GDP and 37 percent of world trade value. The tie-up generally has the following three points of significance: It will boost Japan's GDP by an estimated one percent; it will counter the protectionism and trade war waged by the Trump administration and last but not least; it will improve Japan's presence as one of the major promoters of international cooperation in the age of zero-polarity.
Moreover, this agreement has the potential for Japan and Europe -- both market-oriented and socially mature -- to maintain and improve quality standards in areas of environment protection and safety etc. The accord can be implemented to regulate and steer trade so that liberalization will not flood the market with cheap and nasty products, and that the quality of life for consumers is maintained and improved. In an age when the symbolism of free trade has no attraction, it is important to strike a balance between quality of life and free trade. Now only Japan and Europe can play that role.
However, this positioning poses Japan its own tasks to tackle. The country is in fact the third-largest economy in the world, and has somehow managed to maintain liberal democracy for a long period of time. However, under a one-party dominant administration that is long serving, a new form of nepotism is popping up here and there, and loud voices are heard online denying values held dear by traditional political correctness such as pacifism, gender equality, and multiculturalism. And when you look down on the ground where you are standing, you find nearly 10 million people living with an average annual income of only 1.86 million yen.
Under such circumstances, one has to wonder, to say the least, if the internal democratic foundation to support the deteriorating world can last long. If what is happening is a simple expression of trade liberalization and will only cause the thinning of the middle class, Japan too might well shortly embrace anti-liberalism, and turn its back to getting involved in the world. That would mean a further withdrawal of liberal international order.
Therefore, we need to turn our attention to internal issues to maintain our commitment eternally. The Japan-EU partnership accords that came into existence this time, along with the 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, has to be translated visibly into an increase in real income and narrowing of disparities between classes, generations and regions, so that it truly benefits ordinary people.
In this sense, the Japan-EU partnership poses a crossroads for Japan. Through this agreement, Japan can make a leading and sustainable commitment to a chaotic contemporary world or the country may erode its social democratic foundation enabling such a commitment.
We are only six years away from the deadline predicted by Garton Ash. That could overlap with the end of a second term of President Trump if he is re-elected. What will happen and what can be done by that time? Our imagination toward Japan and the world after the ratification of the Japan-EU agreement is being tested.
(By Ken Endo, professor of International Politics, Hokkaido University)