The leaders of Japan and the European Union signed a free trade deal Tuesday, saying it was a "clear" and "powerful message" against protectionism, with the United States locked in an escalating trade war with China.

The agreement, which European Council President Donald Tusk called "the largest bilateral trade deal ever," aims at boosting business between the two regions by eliminating tariffs on most products.

"Japan and the EU are sending a powerful message to promote free, fair and rules-based trade, and against protectionism," the leaders' joint statement said.

In a press conference after the signing ceremony in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, "While protectionism is spreading in the world, the signing (of the pact) clearly demonstrates the unshakable political will of Japan and the European Union to take the lead in the world as flag bearers for free trade."

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker described the signing of the deal as a "landmark moment for global trade." The pact will create a free trade zone accounting for roughly 30 percent of the world's gross domestic product and about 600 million people in 29 countries.

The ceremony came amid spreading protectionism driven by U.S. President Donald Trump's "America First" agenda and an intensifying trade row between the United States and China.

Tusk hailed the accord, saying, "This is an act of enormous strategic importance for the rules-based international order at a time when some are questioning this order."

Referring to ties between Japan and the European Union, he said, "Geographically we are far apart, but politically and economically we could hardly be any closer."

(From left, Japan PM Abe, European Commission President Juncker and European Council President Tusk)

Both sides also signed a strategic partnership agreement, a framework aimed at strengthening bilateral cooperation on a broad range of bilateral and multilateral issues, including security, cybercrime and climate change.

"We underline the crucial role of the rules-based multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organization at its core and continue to fight protectionism," the statement said.

Japan and the European Union became the targets of recent U.S. import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum products.

Having started negotiations on the pact in 2013, the two sides reached an agreement in principle at the previous Japan-EU summit last July and then finalized their consultations in December. Following the signing ceremony, they will seek parliamentary ratification.

Japan and the European Union are aiming to have the pact enter into force by late March next year, when Britain is scheduled to leave the regional bloc.

The prime minister expressed the readiness of Japan and the European Union toward an early implementation of the pact and also welcomed the launch of a ministerial-level industrial, trade and economic dialogue, with the initial round of talks expected to take place by the end of the year.

Under the scheme, Japan will eliminate tariffs on 94 percent of all imports from the European Union, including 82 percent of farm and fishery products, resulting in lower prices for European cheese, wine and pork in the Japanese market.

Japan will scrap tariffs on hard cheese such as cheddar and gouda in the 16th year of the treaty, while duties will be scrapped on European chocolate and pasta after 10 years.

The European Union will erase tariffs on 99 percent of imports from Japan. It will eliminate tariffs on Japan's mainstay products of automobiles in the eighth year and TVs in the sixth year following the pact's implementation.

The regional bloc will immediately eliminate tariffs on Japanese sake, green tea and soy sauce, while wine will also be reciprocally traded without tariffs right after the pact comes into force.

But both parties have decided not to include a controversial scheme to settle investment disputes and will continue negotiations over the matter.

Japan and the European Union had originally planned to sign the pact on July 11 in Brussels during Abe's planned overseas trip, but the prime minister canceled the plan to focus on dealing with the deadly torrential rain that hit western Japan.

On the security front, the three leaders agreed to work toward the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, Tusk said.

They also confirmed that the European Union will provide support for Japan in resolving the issue of Japanese nationals abducted decades ago by the North, which Abe has viewed as his government's most important agenda, he also said.

"Japan and the EU remain united in our commitment to making the Iran nuclear deal work," Tusk said, referencing the 2015 agreement, from which Washington withdrew in May.

Both sides also reached an agreement to protect personal data and facilitate its cross-border transport between companies in a move expected to promote marketing activities, according to the leaders.