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Germany, Japan seek deeper ties during Scholz visit

April 27, 2022

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is embarking on his first visit to Japan and relations with Tokyo have taken on more significance as geopolitical challenges mount from Russia to China.

Fumio Kishida and Olaf Scholz meeting at G7 meeting
Scholz and Kishida recently met at a G7 meeting in Brussels on March 24Image: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/AP/picture alliance

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is scheduled to arrive in Japan on Thursday to kick off a two-day visit hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Scholz is due to attend a dinner party hosted by the Japanese leader and will also address a business forum organized by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan.

However, with Russia's war raging in Ukraine, and an increasingly aggressive China,security issues are expected to dominate the agenda on the chancellor's first visit to Asia.

Scholz is expected to emphasize the growing importance of Japan for Germany, and that Berlin is not losing sight of Asia, despite huge challenges in Europe.

Analysts point out that the two leaders find themselves in similar geopolitical and defense predicaments.  

Olaf Scholz
Japanese political observers have yet to decide what kind of leader Olaf Scholz is Image: Lisi Niesner/REUTERS

Similarities on Russia 

Tokyo and Berlin have both condemned Russia's aggression against Ukraine and imposed sanctions on Moscow, although the two governments have held back on blocking Russian energy.

Japan has provided Ukraine with military equipment, including helmets, body armor and large amounts of medical supplies, but says it is unable to deliver weapons.

Similarly, when the war began, Germany offered only non-lethal assistance to Ukraine.

However, Berlin eventually turned around a key foreign policy principle on not delivering arms to combat zones, and said it would deliver arms to Ukraine. 

Earlier this week, Germany also announced it would be delivering heavy weaponry to Ukrainian forces. However, despite these promises, Germany is still accused of dragging its feet on getting the weaponry to the battlefield.

Japan wants Germany's support on China

Although Russia's war in Ukraine is presenting an acute geopolitical crisis in Europe, in Asia, China's aggressive policies in the Indo-Pacific are seen as an even greater, slow-burning challenge for global order.

"Japan is very concerned about the situation in Ukraine, but ultimately its threat comes from China and Kishida is hoping to use this visit by the German leader to reinforce Japan's position on the need for all nations to follow the rule of law and a 'free and open' Indo-Pacific region," Mieko Nakabayashi, a former politician with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, told DW.

Japan appreciated the decision by Berlin to dispatch the German frigate Bayern in May of last year, Nakabayashi added.

The first German warship to visit Japan in 20 years, the Bayern took part in a series of exercises with Japanese and maritime units, with Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi declaring at the time that the deployment was an important demonstration of the security ties that bind the two nations.  

A warship in a harbor
The German warship 'Bayern' seen in Tokyo Image: Lars Nicolaysen/dpa/picture alliance

The German government first published guidelines for an Indo-Pacific policy in 2019 under former Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since then, Germany has been showing more presence in this region.

"Japan very much wants German solidarity and support in the Indo-Pacific region and, after Germany sent the warship to Japan last year, I think it is very possible that Kishida will ask for another demonstration of Berlin's support," Patrick Hein, a lecturer in political science at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, told DW.  

A more assertive foreign policy?

Since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict, and with China an ever-present concern in the background, the Japanese government has moved forward proposals to increase defense spending to 2% of GDP and develop new capabilities in space and cyber warfare, as well as enhanced conventional capabilities.  

Tokyo is also suddenly taking a far firmer line on the Northern Territories, the chain of islands off the most northerly tip of Japan that was seized by forces of the Soviet Union in 1945, said Hein.

The two governments have been locked in a diplomatic row over the sovereignty of the territory and it is possible that an economically weakened and diplomatically isolated Russia might in the future be more open to negotiating ownership of the islands, he added.

Kishida has also embarked on an ambitious diplomatic schedule as he looks to position Japan front and center of discussions on Ukraine, China and North Korea.

As well as welcoming Scholz, the Japanese leader recently met in Tokyo with Jacinda Ahern, the New Zealand leader, and Swiss President Ignazio Cassis.  

Kishida is also expected to visit Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam in the coming weeks before US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive in Tokyo for a gathering of the heads of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue forum known as the Quad. 

"Germany is one of Japan's rare trusted partners in the world," said Norihide Miyoshi, a former Germany correspondent for Japan's largest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. "Coordination and cooperation with Germany is very important for Japan to deal with Russia and China," Miyoshi told DW.

He added that the visit is a good opportunity to get to know Scholz's personality. Germany's image in Japan, he said, is still strongly influenced by Angela Merkel, who was highly regarded as a "capable and influential" politician.

With additional reporting by Martin Fritz in Tokyo

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea