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Germany's Olaf Scholz visits Japan to ramp up security ties

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
March 17, 2023

Chancellor Scholz and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will look at ways to deepen bilateral security relations amid growing challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. The war in Ukraine is also high on the agenda.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Scholz and Kishida agreed to launch German-Japanese intergovernmental consultations when they met in April last yearImage: Michael Kappeler/picture alliance/dpa

When he arrives in Tokyo on Friday for three days of discussions with the Japanese premier and other officials, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will be accompanied by no fewer than six members of his cabinet.

This underlines the importance that both sides place on what will be the inaugural session of the intergovernmental consultations that the two leaders agreed to launch when they met in April last year.  

The agenda is expected to include bilateral economic and trade ties, the durability of supply chains, shared environmental concerns and preparations for the upcoming G7 summit, which Japan is hosting in Hiroshima in May.

It is security issues, however, that will dominate the talks.  

German attitudes towards China 

"Kishida wants to obtain a first-hand understanding of Germany's policy towards China and on the Ukraine situation," Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor of politics and international relations at Waseda University, told DW.   

"Japan is deeply worried that Germany and other countries still want to try to cooperate with China, despite the problems we are seeing in the Indo-Pacific region," he said, pointing to China's occupation and militarization of atolls and reefs across the South China Sea, the comprehensive crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, the ongoing threats against Taiwan and increasingly aggressive territorial claims against a number of neighboring states, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and India.  

"European countries have been critical of China, but they have not taken steps that would anger Beijing out of concern for the economic impact that could have," Shigemura said.

'More than China': Germany rethinks Asia

"Germany, in particular, has been criticized here for its economic ties to China, and Japan would very much like to see those links lessened. 

"At a basic level, Japan does not understand why European nations say they are committed to human rights, democracy and the rights of people to freedom, but then countries like Germany 'forget' those promises to cooperate with China," Shigemura underlined. 

In a scathing editorial in November 2022, the Sankei Shimbun newspaper claimed that Scholz's visit to China that month "raised concern that Germany may be willing to sacrifice Western unity for its own economic advantage." 

The paper pointed out that Scholz was accompanied by a dozen top German business leaders, adding, "Unfortunately, it may be concluded that Germany has become hopelessly infatuated with China's enormous economic power." 

Scholz and his Japanese counterpart Kishida viewing an honor guard in Tokyo
Regional and global security issues will dominate the talks between Scholz and KishidaImage: REUTERS

Joint military exercises 

Kishida will, however, express his gratitude for the deployment of Germany military units to Japan in recent years for joint exercises with the Japanese and US militaries in the region. The German navy frigate Bayern visited Japan in May 2021 and German fighter aircraft took part in drills here last year.  

"I expect Kishida to ask Scholz for more of the same, for additional military units to train with Japanese and US forces here, because Japan is very happy to see European nations' flags flying here," said Robert Dujarric, co-director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.   

"These visits and joint exercises may be largely symbolic as no European country is able to send a large force to the Pacific, but it's an important message that Japan does have partners," he said.  

"The message is that Japan is building a coalition of what it likes to refer to as 'like-minded nations' in order to protect the idea of a 'free and open Indo-Pacific,'" Dujarric added.

Ukraine will be another critical topic during the talks, with Shigemura anticipating that Kishida will ask his German counterpart for advice and support on his plans to travel to Kyiv to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.  

Kishida has reportedly been keen to travel to Ukraine to demonstrate Japan's support for the war-torn nation, particularly as he is the only G7 leader to not have made the journey so far and the G7 summit is rapidly approaching.

Japan's Foreign Ministry is extremely wary about the trip, however, not only due to the security challenges any such visit would entail but also because it is keen to avoid further antagonizing Russia.  

Japan boosts military to counter China

Learning from Germany 

Japan also wants to learn from Germany how it was able to overcome its long-standing reluctance to exporting weapons to another country that is at war, with Tokyo similarly struggling to overcome the fine print of its constitution to permit the export of weapons systems to Ukraine.

To date, Japanese support has been in the form of non-lethal aid — such as medical equipment, body armor and anti-landmine technology — along with financial assistance and the promise of more help to rebuild Ukraine as soon as the conflict is over.  

Scholz is likely to encourage Kishida to go ahead with weapons exports to Ukraine, Shigemura said, both to underline Japan's support for Ukraine but also to ease some of the pressures on European nations to keep providing weapons and ammunition.  

On the economic front, discussions on bilateral trade are expected to be more fruitful.

Trade between both sides is huge and, at least until the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in early 2020, was growing.

Germany is the top European exporter to Japan, with trade valued at €38.6 billion ($42.3 billion) a year before the global health crisis, while German direct investment into Japan came to €15.6 billion a year.

At least 12,480 German companies export to Japan and 450 have gone as far as to set up a subsidiary there.

In addition, German business is responsible for some 265,000 jobs in the Asian nation. 

A recent report by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tokyo showed that more German companies now see Japan as an advantageous place to do business in, given the country's economic, political and social stability.

Cooperation between German and Japanese firms has also been on the rise since the difficult days of the pandemic, it noted.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru


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