TOKYO: The EU and Japan signed a sweeping free trade deal Tuesday that officials called a "clear message" against protectionism, as Washington imposes controversial tariffs and threatens a trade war.
The deal signed in Tokyo by the EU's top officials and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the biggest ever negotiated by the EU and creates a free trade zone covering nearly a third of the world's GDP.
"We are sending a clear message that we stand together against protectionism," EU Council President Donald Tusk said.
"Together we are making -- by signing this agreement -- a statement about free and fair trade, we are showing that we are stronger and better off when we work together," added Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker.
The huge deal was signed as President Donald Trump unsettles allies and provokes rivals with his aggressive "America First" trade policy.
Both the EU and Japan have been hit with new US tariffs despite their longstanding alliances with Washington.
Juncker said the deal sent a message that "trade is about more than tariffs and barriers, it is about values".
"There is no protection in protectionism," he said.
Abe, standing alongside the two EU officials, said the agreement, "shows the world the unshaken political will of Japan and the EU to lead the world as the champions of free trade at a time when protectionism has spread".
Taking aim at Trump :
The agreement must still be ratified by the EU parliament, as well as Japanese lawmakers, but is expected to enter into force from 2019.
The EU -- the world's biggest single market with 28 countries and 500 million people -- is trying to boost alliances in the face of Trump's protectionist administration.
On Sunday, the US president fuelled rising rancour by labelling the EU, along with Russia and China, "a foe" of the United States, and repeating his assertion that the EU has "really taken advantage of us on trade".
Without mentioning Trump by name, Tusk made sharply clear that the agreement was intended as a counterpoint to Washington's current trade policy.
"It's a light in the increasing darkness of international politics," Tusk said.
"We are sending a clear message that you can count on us, both Japan and the EU. We are predictable, responsible, and will continue defending a world order based on rules, freedom and transparency and common sense."
He dismissed concerns about the effect on small businesses, suggesting US trade policy was far more problematic.
"Political uncertainty, tariffs, aggressive rhetoric, unpredictability, irresponsibility, they are the real risks for our businesses, not trade deals," he said.
United EU-Japan front :
The EU is seeking access to one of the world's richest markets, while Japan hopes to jump-start an economy that has struggled to find solid growth.
Junichi Sugawara, a senior research officer at Mizuho Research Institute, said Trump's protectionism had "prompted Japan and the EU to speed up negotiations on the deal".
"Abe has good relations with Trump, but in terms of trade, Japan has sided with the EU. Japan and the EU will form a united front against a US threat to impose tariffs on key products such as cars." he told AFP.
Talks last year closed the gap on most remaining issues between the EU and Japan, but a dispute resolution mechanism remains to be negotiated.
Tusk and Juncker arrived in Tokyo from Beijing, where they urged calm instead of "conflict" in international trade.
"It is the common duty of Europe and China, but also America and Russia, not to destroy (the global trade order) but to improve it, not to start trade wars which turned into hot conflicts so often in our history," Tusk said Monday in Beijing.
"There is still time to prevent conflict and chaos."
Abe had been scheduled to sign the deal in Brussels last week, but cancelled his trip after devastating floods that killed more than 220 people.