Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left Tuesday on a six-nation European tour, hoping to move ahead on trade talks and possible security deals at a time when China is flexing its muscles.
Abe’s nine-day visit, which will take him to Germany, Britain, Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium, comes less than a week after Japan hosted U.S. President Barack Obama on a state visit.
Despite high hopes, Tokyo and Washington failed to find common ground on a Pacific-wide free trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
A year ago, the European Union and Japan launched their own trade talks aimed at boosting business between the continent and the world’s No. 3 economy, a tie-up that would account for about 40 percent of global trade.
Officials on both sides say negotiations are moving forward and a deal could be struck before the TPP, with Abe’s visit seen as an important diplomatic boost to winning an agreement.
The prime minister’s itinerary includes a Japan-EU summit and lunch with business leaders in Paris. He will also have meetings with NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Angel Gurria, head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Earlier this month Japan eased a self-imposed ban on arms exports, introducing new rules covering the arms trade in a move that supporters say will boost Tokyo’s global role.
The change comes as Japan is locked in a bitter territorial dispute with an increasingly assertive China, while regional tensions are running high over a possible North Korean nuclear test.
The killing of 10 Japanese during a hostage crisis at a remote Algerian gas plant last year has prompted new security concerns in Tokyo.
“Japan recognizes the importance of Europe, particularly in terms of security, as we are global partners,” a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said Monday.
Abe, whose trip runs until May 7, will be joined for part of it by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
While Obama’s visit underlined Washington’s pledge to protect Japan in case of military conflict, Abe’s trip to Europe is aimed at broadening Tokyo’s security ties.
“Clearly, Japan is attaching more importance than before to these issues in its dialogue with European countries — they’re much more visible on his agenda,” a European diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
France has already announced a deal to cooperate with Japan in robotics and cyberdefense as well as joint work on advanced helicopters and submarines.
Loosening Tokyo’s ban on arms exports could also lead to business with Europe. Abe’s Cabinet approved the plan to replace the 1967 blanket ban, which prohibited arms sales to conflict-plagued countries or nations that could undermine international peace and security.
Japan’s postwar constitution, imposed by U.S.-led Occupation, banned the country from waging war.
Tokyo is also eyeing a possible Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement with European nations, which would allow them to provide logistic supplies to one another during military operations. Japan already has such pacts with the United States and Australia.