Tokyo Haneda airport, Saturday, early afternoon. It’s pouring down with rain. One by one, after a non-stop 12-and-a-half hour flight with Germany’s brand-new “Konrad Adenauer” government plane, members of the German cabinet descend the stairs, and are welcomed on the red carpet by officials carrying dripping wet umbrellas in the colors of the German flag.
The appearance of Robert Habeck, Boris Pistorius, Volker Wissing, Christian Lindner, Nancy Faeser and Annalena Baerbock – the ministers of economy and climate, defense, transport, finance, interior and foreign policy respectively – show that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has brought with him the highest-ranking delegation he could.
For Germany, Asia long meant China
That’s no coincidence. It is a deliberate gesture of respect towards Japan, a country that is becoming increasingly important for the German government. That wasn’t always the case. For a long time, when previous German governments spoke about Asia they meant China.
That has changed drastically, not least since Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Japan condemned the war very early on, and adopted western sanctions against Russia, a significant signal from a country that acted differently in 2014 after the invasion of Crimea.
The ministers are ushered into cars, and the German motorcade rushes through the rain through Tokyo’s city center – again, one should say.
It’s barely 11 months since the chancellor was last here. In April 2022, only a few months after taking office, Scholz embarked on his first trip to Asia – and made a point of visiting Japan rather than China, as his predecessors Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel had done. Russia’s war against Ukraine had triggered the start of a major rethink in Germany’s foreign and security policy, and highlighted the need to reduce whatever dependencies the country had not just on Russia, but also China.
In the Japanese government, Scholz quickly identified partners faced with the same challenge: The need to diversify. Uncoupling from China is not an option for either of the two, both governments have consistently said. But the COVID pandemic, and above all Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have exposed the vulnerabilities that stem from one-sided dependencies. And so, in 2022, Germany and Japan agreed to plan bilateral inter-governmental consultations to deepen their collaboration – with a focus on economic security.
First-ever legal framework for defense collaboration
Central Tokyo. The German chancellor arrives at Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s residence to be greeted with military honors. While the two men hold talks, the other German members of cabinet discuss the details of planned collaborations with their respective counterparts. Boris Pistorius will later stress that he’s the first German defense minister to have come to Japan in 16 years. His job here is to discuss a potential new legal framework of defense cooperation with Minister Yasukazu Hamada.
The Indo-Pacific region is Japan’s region, but is also important for Germany. German government officials say it was appreciated here when the German frigate “Bayern” came to Japan in 2022. The same applied to the decision to have Eurofighters stop over in Japan on their way to Australia at the end of 2022. Both may have been largely symbolic occasions, but demonstrating that you’ve got strong partners in other parts of the world is becoming increasingly important. And Japan and Germany want to do more of that in future.
Fight against the climate crisis, energy security, geopolitical security
Then things get hectic as ministers eventually arrive at the prime minister’s residence for the so-called family photo. After a 90-minute plenary discussion behind closed doors, Scholz and Kishida address the press, when they underline their partnership and mutual gratitude.
And it becomes clear once again that these two countries have recognized that they share not just values, but increasingly also economic and strategic interests. Collaboration is to be intensified in many areas: the fight against the climate crisis, food security, cybersecurity, telecommunications, and others.
As for the overarching topic of the consultations, economic security, the Japanese-German communiqué says the two countries will work together to source critical minerals, considered vital to reducing dependency on China.
The German government is being accompanied in Tokyo this weekend by a business delegation. Scholz says he hopes the deepened collaboration between relevant agencies – like the Japan Organization for Metals and Energy Security and the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources – will give businesses a better idea where to invest in projects.
And as for geopolitical security, the German chancellor uses the joint stage in Tokyo to thank Japan again for condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Japan supports the so-called West’s stance towards Russia and Ukraine. If Vladimir Putin gets away with his aggression in Ukraine, Japan fears that East Asia might be the next region that will be destabilized, and that China might, just like Russia did in Ukraine, push through its own interests in the region with military means.
Rising tension in the Taiwan Strait and the South China sea – all of that is happening on Japan’s doorstep. At the press conference, neither leader finds a need to mention China directly. Both leaders stress again that the geopolitical status quo must not be changed by force. The German chancellor has said repeatedly that Russia’s war in Ukraine is not just a European issue. In the Japanese, it seems, he’s found partners who truly agree with him.
On Sunday morning, the German delegation will leave Japan again. But Olaf Scholz won’t be away for long – he’s expected back in Japan in May, for the G7 summit in Hiroshima.
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