TOKYO / BERLIN – China looms large when Japan and Germany discuss increasing security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, possibly including joint exercises this summer, at Tuesday’s first “two-plus-two” meeting of foreign and defense ministers.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi warned of increasing Chinese military activity in the Indo-Pacific. “Due to unilateral efforts to change the status quo by force, we can no longer rely on assumptions that support peace and stability in the international community,” he said.
European countries including Germany have distanced themselves from China as it strengthens its grip on Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Japan and the US are eager to call for their cooperation towards a “free and open Indo-Pacific” to counter Beijing’s expanding military and economic footprint in the region.
“In order for Germany and Europe to continue to help actively shape the world of the future, we must strengthen our involvement in Asia in particular, where important global decisions for the future will be made during this century,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
“Cooperation with Japan plays an important role in this, as Japan is Germany’s key partner in efforts, based on shared values, to promote multilateralism, the rule of law and human rights,” he said.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and his German counterpart Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also took part in Tuesday’s meeting via video conference.
The two sides discussed conducting joint naval exercises while Germany send a naval frigate to the Indo-Pacific as early as summer. The frigate is expected to create a port in Japan as part of the tour.
The move is particularly unusual for Germany, which has no territory in the Asia-Pacific. Although Germany has sent naval vessels to the region previously to promote goodwill, it has never been done for security-related reasons, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense.
At Tuesday’s virtual meeting, the two sides shared serious concerns over China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, as well as human rights abuses against the Uighur minority in the Xinjiang region.
The two-plus-two dialogue is the latest signal from Germany of its growing interest in the Indo-Pacific. In the US, the Biden administration is desperate for greater European involvement to promote a rules-based order in the region amid concerns that Washington itself cannot check China’s military presence in the region.
Germany is the third European country to create a two-plus-two framework with Japan, after Britain and France.
Japan and Britain expressed similar concerns over the situation in Hong Kong at their last two-plus-two talks this February. Britain will send the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific at the end of the year for joint exercises with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.
Japan and France have not held a two-plus-two meeting since 2019. There is a growing push to revive dialogue within the Japanese government, especially after France in February said it had sent a nuclear strike submarine into the South China Sea.
European countries are increasingly wary of Beijing’s rise.
Britain has placed a greater focus on Chinese human rights issues under Conservative Party Prime Minister Boris Johnson, departing from the warm bilateral relations under his predecessor David Cameron. It is imperative that China detains pro-democracy activists in the former British colony Hong Kong despite previously agreeing to give the city a high degree of autonomy following its handover.
China’s economic influence in Asia is also a concern, especially as the UK turns to the market after leaving the European Union. China “presents the greatest country-based threat to the security of the British economy,” the British government. said in a defense review published in March.
Britain has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact known as the TPP-11, which increasingly serves as a balancing force in trade against China.
Germany and France have criticized China not only for Hong Kong, but also Uighurs and for belittling the coronavirus.
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly last September, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a UN-backed mission to Xinjiang. German Chancellor Angela Merkel views China as a “systemic” rival, given their different political structures.
Germany is also concerned about China’s efforts to acquire companies with cutting-edge technology.
“Britain, Germany and France believe they need to work with Japan and other countries with similar values to send a political message,” said Tokyo University professor Yuichi Morii, an expert on German politics.
But European countries don’t want to lose access to China’s 1.4 billion consumers. Volkswagen sells about 40% of its new vehicles in China. Their geographic distance from the country means Beijing does not pose as many direct security threats as it does to Japan, for example.
Merkel emphasized the importance of dialogue with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the April 7 phone call. Japan and the US may need to step up diplomatic efforts to defend Europe if tensions with Beijing start to weigh on its economy.
Additional reporting by Yusuke Nakajima in London and Togo Shiraishi in Paris.