The Japanese government has called on Germany to send a warship to East Asia in the year ahead as Tokyo looks to bolster international support for its vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi held online talks on Tuesday with his German counterpart, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and expressed hope that a German vessel would take part in joint exercises with units of Japan's Self-Defense Forces in 2021.
More significantly, Kishi suggested it would assist the international community's efforts to ensure the right of passage of vessels through the South China Sea if the German warship would traverse waters that have effectively been seized by Beijing in recent years, in defiance of rival claims to reefs, islands and waters from surrounding nations.
The United States and Australia have both sent military vessels through the South China Sea, which Beijing effectively began annexing at the start of the decade.
China initially insisted that it would not deploy military units to the islands, but large-scale reclamation work has been undertaken on a number of the larger islands, with missile emplacements and runways constructed for fighter aircraft.
Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all lay claim to some of the islands that are presently under Chinese control and in 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of Manila in its territorial dispute with Beijing, although China has ignored the ruling.
Vital shipping lanes
Japan is particularly keen to keep the waters of the South China Sea free of Beijing's direct control as the vast majority of the nation's imports — including critical energy supplies from the Middle East — must come through the region.
In a statement issued by the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo, Kishi said discussions are "aimed at promoting cooperation with like-minded countries that share a goal of realizing freedom of navigation, the rule of law and connectivity."
The statement added that it is "important for each country, including China, to refrain from taking actions that escalate tensions and to act in accordance with the rule of law, taking into account the current security environment in the South China Sea."
Akitoshi Miyashita, a professor of international relations at Tokyo International University, says Japan's invitation to Germany is part of a bigger campaign to build an alliance against further Chinese territorial ambitions.
"Japan is trying to have as many like-minded Western countries as possible send military units to the Far East to send a signal to China that they are united in seeking a free and open Indo-Pacific region," he told DW.
"I do not think that Germany will take part in any particular actions, but the sheer presence of a German warship in the Far East will send a clear message to Beijing," he underlined. "This will be a symbolic visit, but one that will be very positively viewed in Japan."
Tokyo has already announced that Japan, France and the US will carry out joint military maneuvers for the first time in May 2021, while the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will also travel to the region with an accompanying task force for exercises.
During a keynote address at the Bundeswehr University in Munich in November 2019, German Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer said: "Our partners in the Indo-Pacific region — first and foremost Australia, Japan, and South Korea, but also India — are feeling increasingly squeezed by China's claim to power."
"They want a clear sign of solidarity. For valid international law, for intact territory, for free navigation," she added. "It is time for Germany to send such a signal, too, by showing a presence in the region with our allies. Because we have an interest in ensuring that existing law is respected."
The announcements of foreign forces conducting drills with Japanese naval units have been condemned by China, with the state-run Global Times newspaper stating in a recent editorial that Tokyo is seeking joint exercises "to rope in the US and its allies to back its illegal maritime claims and to contain China's development. But such goals will not be reached.
"Britain and France also need to take stock of their own strength," it added. "China is no longer a country that can easily be bullied like the China it was 100 years ago. The days are also long gone when Western aggressors could occupy a country for hundreds of years by simply setting up a few cannons on a coast in the East. So if they ever provoke China again, they are bound to be countered promptly. They will lose more than they might gain."
The editorial underlined that France and the UK "should be ashamed of themselves" for "provoking trouble in China's coastal waters." It is likely that Germany will be the target of similar criticism from Beijing should a warship be deployed to the region.
North Korea campaign
Tokyo is also likely to invite other navies to take part in exercises to combat efforts by North Korea to circumvent international sanctions imposed over its ongoing development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.
With its land borders closed, North Korean ships have been spotted countless times in recent years transshipping goods at sea with foreign-flagged vessels. Oil has been a primary concern for the regime in Pyongyang and illegal transfers at sea have frequently involved tankers.
In 2018, a number of British warships, including HMS Ocean and HMS Sutherland, took part in patrols off the Korean Peninsula to dissuade North Korean ships from attempting to evade sanctions.
North Korean media declared the deployment to be "an extremely provocative act."
Patrick Hein, a lecturer in political science at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, says Japan is "looking to secure new allies and strengthen existing security relationships."
"I do not see any form of military role for Germany in the Far East, primarily because the German military does not have the required capabilities," he said. "That means that any such deployment will be purely symbolic, but that is also important to Japan as it continues to push the importance of the rule of law in any territorial disputes in the region."