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German frigate arrives in Tokyo as China ties cool in post-Merkel era

  • November 5, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 1:39 a.m.
  • English Press

JUN ISHIKAWA, Nikkei staff writer


BERLIN — The German frigate Bayern is set to participate in exercises with Japan, the U.S., Australia and Canada after a port call in Tokyo that begins Friday, as Berlin looks to strengthen relationships with fellow democracies having stakes in the Indo-Pacific.


The vessel, which set sail in August, will dock in the Japanese capital until Nov. 12, according to the German Navy, after which it will join a 20-ship joint drill. The Bayern had sought to stop in Shanghai during its Indo-Pacific tour but was denied.


The rare naval deployment in the Indo-Pacific by a European nation with no overseas territories comes amid the beginnings of a shift in Germany’s attitude toward Beijing with the impending departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had long been relatively friendly toward China.


Germany issued foreign policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific in September 2020 that call for “closing ranks with democracies and partners with shared values.”


The document was spurred by Beijing asserting its claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere, as well as human rights concerns over China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority population. Berlin also was responding to growing worries about depending too much on China economically, given Beijing’s ongoing tensions with Washington.


Though China remains Germany’s largest trading partner, business leaders have shown mounting frustration over problems such as forced technology transfers.


A report in July from the Federation of German Industries argued that economic interconnection with China has not naturally encouraged free trade and democracy as many had hoped it would. “‘Transformation through trade’ has reached its limits,” the report said.


How Germany’s approach to China will change post-Merkel is the main question. Talks continue after the general election in September, but the most likely outcome is a three-way coalition involving the Social Democratic Party, the Green Party and the libertarian Free Democratic Party.


The three parties released a 12-page exploratory paper that did not touch on China explicitly, but stressed “close cooperation with those states that share our democratic values” and “systemic competition with authoritarian states and dictatorships.”


The Greens and the Free Democrats “have over the past few years developed a different position on China than the federal government under Merkel,” said Maximilian Mayer, a professor of international relations at the University of Bonn.


With the Green Party’s emphasis on human rights and the FDP’s focus on free market rules, a coalition involving both could come down harder on China.


But it remains unclear how closely the coalition would stick to these principles even when they hurt Germany economically. The deep economic ties between the two countries are unlikely to change overnight.


The coalition is expected to align with France and other major European Union players to seek a united path. German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, seen as the most likely pick for chancellor in a Social Democratic-led government, is pro-EU.


The Bayern is expected to pass through the South China Sea during its Indo-Pacific stint, but not the Taiwan Strait, hinting that Berlin remains wary of going too far in provoking Beijing.

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