Germany’s quietly growing relationship with Japan – The Diplomat


Three days before German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ controversial visit to China on November 4, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in Tokyo. During the meeting, the two sides agreed to strengthen their cooperation on a wide range of issues, including sanctions against Russia, economic security, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, reform of the United Nations Security Council and climate change. The two leaders also expressed joint concerns over unilateral attempts to forcibly change the status quo in the East and South China Seas. In an interview afterwards, Steinmeier called Japan an important partner sharing a wide range of common interests and values ​​despite its geographical distance.

Germany’s Growing Relations with Japan

The German president’s visit is just one indication of the recent development of Germany’s ties with Japan. An interesting comparison can show how Germany’s relations with Japan are evolving: in the policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific region adopted by the German government in 2020, the word “China” appears 62 times while “Japan” only 28 times in the 68-page documents. However, in the “Progress Report on the Implementation of the Federal Government’s Policy Directions for the Indo-Pacific in 2022” published two years later, “China” appears only twice while “Japan ” is mentioned 10 times in the 11-page document.

The only China-related achievements mentioned in the progress report are two agricultural cooperation movements. On the other hand, the progress of Germany’s cooperation with Japan in various fields – including digital transformation, the fight against climate change, joint military exercises, high-level visits and the strengthening of multilateralism – is recorded in the document. While China was a vital factor that Germany had to take into account when developing its policy directions for the Indo-Pacific, Japan became the partner that really played a role in the implementation process. directions.

The growing relationship between Germany and Japan is characterized by two trends. The first trend is the increase in high-level communication. Three high-level German government officials – the president, chancellor and foreign minister – have made official visits to Japan so far this year. In the case of Chancellor Scholz and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Japan was chosen as the destination on their first trip to Asia. Other high-level communication channels such as the Japan-Germany Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting (“2+2”) and intergovernmental consultations by prime ministers and ministers are also operational or in preparation.

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The second trend is the expansion of areas of cooperation. While Germany and Japan have intensified their bilateral cooperation in the field of economy and trade, their security cooperation has also grown. Baerbock spoke of seeking stronger defense ties between the two countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the field of traditional security, the two countries signed the information security agreement in 2021, and on November 3 this year, they agreed to coordinate to start negotiations on an acquisition agreement and cross-services (ACSA). In November 2021, the German Navy frigate Bayern docked in Tokyo as the first German warship to visit Japan in 20 years and conducted a series of exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. In the field of non-traditional security such as cyber security and climate change, the sixth Germany-Japan ICT Policy Dialogue was held in March this year to share information on promoting the development of 5G, R&D projects in 6G and security measures, and the German government has supported research on materials and propulsion for maritime transport with institutions in Japan.

The reasons for convergence

Several factors at different levels contributed to the growth of the relationship. The first factor, which is at the international level, is the increasingly contentious and difficult Sino-German relationship. Chinese state-owned COSCO’s plan to secure a majority stake in a Hamburg port terminal has raised concerns from several German government departments, as well as the United States, about possible Chinese influence on European critical infrastructures. EU companies’ business plans in the Chinese market are hampered by China’s zero-COVID policy and long-standing restrictions on foreign investment. The growing political divergence between Germany and China has provoked fierce responses from Beijing: ahead of Scholz’s visit to China in November, China warned the German side not to use the visit to “meddle in business internal affairs of China” such as issues related to Xinjiang.

These facts led to more frequent interactions of Germany with Japan. In the opinion of German officials, Japan is a “model” demonstrating how to properly deal with China. German President Steinmeier said Germany should learn from Japan because Tokyo has smartly balanced its economic ties, political differences and security concerns in its relationship with China. Baerbock also told reporters at the G-7 foreign ministers’ meeting this year that Japan had repeatedly stressed that China should be treated not just as a partner, but also as a competitor and even a rival. .

The second factor, which is at the bilateral level, is Japan’s problem-linking strategy. Since the administration of Abe Shinzo, Tokyo has combined security challenges in Europe and East Asia to prompt European partners to pay more attention to Japan. During Kishida’s meeting with Scholz in April this year, after declaring Japan’s continued cooperation with Germany to impose tough sanctions on Russia, the Japanese Prime Minister also reminded his German counterpart that the security of Europe was “inseparable” from security in the Indo-Pacific. Three months later, a German foreign minister’s statement said Germany could “rely 100% on Japan” in the Indo-Pacific because Tokyo had clearly demonstrated this in the face of war. of Russia against Ukraine. This shows that Japan’s communication strategy did play a role in bringing Berlin closer to Tokyo.

The third factor is at the internal level of Germany, namely the increase in internal support for a value-based foreign policy. The prevailing national preference for strengthening ties with partners who share common values ​​has made Japan an ideal partner. With the participation of the Greens and the FDP in the ruling coalition, harsher words on human rights are written in Germany’s coalition agreement.

While it is well known that Baerbock and his party the Greens are strong supporters of values-based foreign policy, it should be noted that their political preferences are also strongly supported by German voters. According to a poll conducted by Infratest-Dimap in November 2022, 90% of Germans call on the federal government to make Germany more economically independent from non-democratic countries in general. In the same poll, only 9% of respondents consider China a trustworthy partner; Baerbock and his party colleague, Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, are the most popular politicians in the eyes of the German population. Most German citizens now favor Germany’s cooperation with partners who share democratic values ​​– such as Japan – rather than economic ties with non-democratic countries.

Future challenges

Although the two countries are getting closer to each other, three factors could pose challenges for the development of Germany-Japan relations. The first factor is the behavior of China. Faced with Scholz’s demands that Beijing use its ‘influence’ over Moscow amid Russia’s war on Ukraine and its interest in pursuing economic cooperation with China, Beijing may ask Germany not to get too close of Japan on certain issues such as human rights and territorial disputes. , in exchange for a response – at least partial – to Germany’s demands.

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The second factor is Japan’s future policy. For now, Japan still imports energy from Russia and has not joined the sanctions imposed on China by the European Union and the United States over Xinjiang. If Japan lacks the resolve to change its current policy, the value basis of Germany-Japan relations may soon come into question.

The third factor is Germany’s changing policy for the Indo-Pacific. While its policy guidelines published in 2019 stressed the importance of closing ranks with “democracies and partners sharing common values ​​in the region”, the German government declared in September 2022 that the government’s offers of cooperation are “extensive to all partners in the region who are committed to the principles of the rules-based order. The dilution of criteria for partners, with less emphasis on shared values ​​and democratic institutions, may lead to Germany’s increasing openness to a wider range of countries in the region. Japan’s priority in German foreign policy towards Asia could therefore diminish.

In sum, Germany’s relations with Japan are developing quietly but significantly due to international, bilateral and domestic factors. However, potential challenges to the bilateral relationship from China as well as the two countries themselves still exist. It remains to be seen how long the upward momentum can continue.


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