Strategic Convergence: Towards a New Chapter in Germany–Japan Ties

20 Apr 2021 03:38 PM

A recently-constituted German–Japanese strategic dialogue signifies an important departure for both countries.

Germany and Japan have just held the first-ever security dialogue between their foreign and defence ministers, also known as the ‘two-plus-two’ format, which Japan has established with a number of other countries such as the US, Australia, France, the UK and India. Although the meeting did not result in a joint declaration, key topics on the agenda reportedly included North Korea, as well as China and its role in the South and East China Seas. So, despite the lack of any form of concrete ‘outcome’, the dialogue is highly significant, at least for two key reasons.

Low Profile, But Important

First, the establishment of this bilateral dialogue channel represents an important step in moving forward with implementing Germany’s Indo-Pacific Guidelines, published as a whole-of-government document in September 2020 to guide the country’s policies in that region. Recognising the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, those guidelines call for a diversification of Germany’s relationships in the region beyond China. In deepening ties with like-minded countries, the document specifically calls for a strengthening of ‘[t]he political dimension of these relations … including closer cooperation in the area of security’. Japan is one of the key regional partners that Berlin seeks to work with. Progress in German–Japanese cooperation can thus be seen as a barometer of Berlin’s resolve to enact its proclaimed policy of diversification and deepening.

Second, the two-plus-two meeting carries significance in the bilateral context, signalling a broadening of the cooperation agenda to encompass security and geopolitical issues of concern to both parties. Thus far, German–Japanese relations have been good and cooperative but confined in scope, leading one scholar to describe them as ‘distant’. Berlin and Tokyo have focused on coordination in the context of multilateral organisations such as the UN or the G7, as well as joint projects in the fields of economics, social policies, culture and intellectual exchange, as well as transnational and ‘soft’ security issues such as climate change.

By contrast, France and the UK have significantly deepened security cooperation with Japan over the past five years. The two have held regular two-plus-two dialogues with Japan since 2014 and 2015, respectively, and have engaged in joint defence equipment projects and conducted military exercises with Japan. Their more proactive postures may be unsurprising, given that these two countries identify themselves as maritime states with a global reach and – in the case of France – as a resident power with territories with substantial populations in the Indo-Pacific region. Germany on the other hand, views itself more as a Euro-centric and continental power and has consequently been hesitant to play a role in security affairs in the Indo-Pacific, at least beyond ‘soft’ security issues.

Grounds For Cooperation

While a downright change in this policy focus is unlikely, Germany’s soul-searching over the past two years has led to the realisation that geopolitical developments in the Indo-Pacific are of such fundamental significance that they require Berlin to influence developments more actively. As the main theatre of US–China competition, the region is viewed by Berlin as ‘key to shaping the international order in the 21st century’.

Against this background, Germany and Japan increasingly find common ground for cooperation, providing new impetus to relations. On a broader level, both countries share concern about the erosion of the existing rules-based liberal international order that is supported by multilateral cooperation. German–Japanese cooperation takes on new urgency, given the growing challenges to that order by China and Russia as well as lingering concern stemming from the years of Donald Trump about the reliability of the US as a leader and guardian of the existing order.

More specifically on China, the gap in perceptions and approaches between Berlin and Tokyo has narrowed, though not closed. In the past decade, Japan generally saw Germany as too soft on China, one-sidedly pursuing economic opportunities, while Germany on the other hand tended to fear being caught up in bilateral Sino-Japanese tensions. China thus used to be an issue dividing the two countries. Amid Beijing’s global ambitions as well as its authoritarian turn under President Xi Jinping, critical views of China have now proliferated in Berlin – similar to the trends in other European capitals. Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has been particularly vocal, calling attention to China’s regional assertiveness, including in the maritime sphere in the South China Sea. While views in Berlin are far from monolithic, there is significantly more willingness to engage and consult countries such as Japan on China-related issues.

Coordinating Stances on China

For Japan, as a state keenly dependent on ocean trading routes, Chinese assertiveness in the maritime space has been a primary concern. Tokyo thus feels reassured by Germany’s more openly critical attitude towards China in this regard. For example, Germany jointly submitted a Note Verbale with France and the UK to the UN in September 2020, clearly rejecting Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea under international law. The most visible indication of Germany’s commitment to the principle of freedom of navigation at sea is the forthcoming dispatch of a frigate to the Indo-Pacific – despite already thinly stretched Bundeswehr resources. Initially planned for 2020, the deployment was rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic to occur between August 2020 to February 2021. Though the frigate’s exact route has not been disclosed, stops will likely include Australia and Japan and a return passage through the South China Sea – the first such passage by a German warship since 2002. Even though the dispatch of a single ship is only a symbolic step, the sign of solidarity is nevertheless of great significance for Japan and other regional countries that feel threatened by China. Reportedly, Germany is furthermore considering the dispatch of fighter and tanker aircrafts to Australia in 2022 as a follow-up to show continued regional presence.

More than ever, deeper cooperation between Germany and Japan makes strategic sense amid converging assessments about international challenges. Given Berlin’s proclivity for multilateralist approaches and European solutions to global flashpoints, Berlin is likely to direct efforts towards fostering closer EU–Japan cooperation. Nevertheless, the two countries should also try to keep up the momentum towards a more ambitious agenda in bilateral ties, resisting past temptations to neglect relations for seemingly more pressing issues.

Alexandra Sakaki is Deputy Head of Research, Asia Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.