The second Japan-Germany 2+2 meeting (i.e. involving foreign and defense ministers) on November 3 is one of those events in the current phase of the “Great Game” that requires special attention and comment. The very phrase “Japan-Germany relations” inadvertently evokes suspicious associations with one of the greatest catastrophes in human history called “World War II”.
The consequence of such associations is the frequent speculation by history buffs that the current political situation is “no small resemblance to the pre-World War II state of affairs”. At the same time, the “what was” mentioned is most often presented in a very simplified way.
With regard to the latter, it should be recalled that since Japan had broken out of self-isolation at the turn of the 1860s and 1870s, the period of alliance between Tokyo and Berlin was short-lived and turned out to be the result of rather fortuitous circumstances. From that “turning point” until the second half of the 1930s Germany had invariably supported China in its strained relations with Japan.
It will certainly surprise many that support for China (with inevitably anti-Japanese overtones) became particularly widespread and comprehensive with the rise to power in Germany of the NSDAP, led by Chancellor (and soon Führer) A. Hitler. The involvement of German military specialists (e.g., Hans von Seeckt) was very important in the process of giving the Chinese armed forces led by Chiang Kai-shek a modern face at that time.
The so-called “Anti-Comintern Pact” with Japan, which was concluded in November 1936, constituted a critical point in German policy in the East Asian region. However, three years later the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dealt a crushing blow to its effectiveness. This was a significant precondition for the eventual collapse of both “Anti-Cominterns”.
It should also be recalled that up to the mid-1930s, it was not “some” Germany and Japan that were seen as the main source of threat to the “post-Versailles” peace, but the prospect of war between Britain and the USA, the major world powers at the time. This, incidentally, must also be taken into account in the current not infrequent talk about “the Anglo-Saxons being to blame”, and about “maritime powers constantly fighting the Eurasian Heartland.”
Nevertheless, the above period in the history of Japan’s relations with Germany took place, and the associations it provokes are present. Therefore, once again, the nature of the current state as well as the prospects for the future development of Japan-Germany relations need to be discussed at least briefly.
It should again be noted that the very fact that there is a “2+2 format” in relations between a couple of countries most often (but not always, as in the Japan-Russia pair) indicates a high level of trust between them. In the Japan-Germany pair, the first Japan-Germany 2+2 meeting was held by videoconference in April 2021. The brief press release issued at the time by the Japanese Foreign Ministry at the end of the hour and a half-long talks was in very general terms, with well-established passages on both bilateral relations and the situation in the Indo-Pacific.
In view of the above, it was puzzling to find a reference to “160 years of Japanese-German friendship” in the above-mentioned document. It is worth mentioning the démarche carried out in 1895 by Germany, Russia and France at the same time, which forced Japan to withdraw its troops from the Chinese Liaodong Peninsula. They were there in accordance with the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which had just been signed at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War. Japan and Germany also found themselves on opposite sides of the front line during World War I.
Today the Japanese-German security cooperation outlined in the press release is at a level that looks rather modest compared to what has already been achieved in Tokyo’s relations with London, for example (not to mention the other “Anglo-Saxons” living in Australia and the US). It is in relation to the United Kingdom that the aforementioned reference to “160 years of friendship” should be applied. Excluding, of course, the same period of major international misunderstandings which began in the summer of 1937 with the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” near Beijing and ended in May 1945 in Berlin and three months later in the Tokyo Bay.
By the time of the first Japan-Germany 2+2 meeting in the spring of 2021, there had already been four such Japan-Britain events and even on the surface (but most importantly, with the substance) the resulting joint documents look much more impressive. In the summer of this year, it was reported that “core” companies in Japan and the UK had decided to combine research work on the design of propulsion systems for 6th generation fighters.
Nothing similar has yet been observed in Japan-Germany relations. The second 2+2 meeting only half-implemented the decision of the first one to hold such events “face-to-face” in the future. While the foreign ministers (Yo. Hayashi and A. Baerbock) did have a similar conversation in Germany’s Münster, the defense ministers (Ya. Hamada and C. Lambrecht) again communicated remotely.
But the former also held bilateral talks, generally speaking, “on occasion”, which appeared to be a “calendar” event of the G7 ministerial level, of which both Japan and Germany are members. It has been pre-scheduled to take place in Münster. On the sidelines of this event, the second Japan-Germany 2+2 meeting took place.
The Japanese Ministry of Defense’s statement of its contents was limited to a single paragraph. The Japanese Foreign Ministry’s statements were almost identical to those of the year before. The document again concluded by expressing the intention of the sides to continue meeting “in the near future” in the “2+2 format”.
Finally, the key question (given recent tragic history) is what does it all mean? The author has no definite answer. And mainly because it is apparently absent at all in the current highly dynamic global political nature. In these circumstances, it is unrewarding to make predictions. But it is also difficult to refrain from speculating on such a topic from the most general perspective.
The basis for these “positions” can be formed by attempts (mentioned above with unkind words) to draw historical analogies, tracing the movement of stars, “modern reading” of ancient writings and simply by some “insights”. The latter do not come to the author in any way, and of the rest only the former deserves attention.
So far nothing resembles the Anti-Comintern Pact in Japan-Germany relations. Although the routine anti-Russian diatribes are present in the public rhetoric of both sides. After all, the “collective West” is still showing signs of life, which means that its key participants have to say a common password (“we are of the same blood”) on various occasions.
At the same time, critical infrastructure of one member of the “collective West” is already being undermined by another. By the way, speaking of the ridiculous “democracies that don’t go to war with each other” meme.
As for both mentioned members, the former has for at least two decades been pursuing a policy (again, dating back to the end of the 19th century) of building relations with China. The recent visit to Beijing by acting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, which surprised many, in fact continues this course of a century and a half. And, of course, this development runs counter to the attempts of the current leader of the “collective West”, if not to block the expansion of China’s influence on the international stage, then at least to completely monopolize the process of building relations with it on behalf of the former.
The one suspected of undermining them has also embarked on the “traditional” route of expanding its presence in East Asia, but by developing relations with another major player in the region, namely Japan.
All of these beginnings of turbulence in the “collective West” itself are overlaid with signs of turmoil in its leader’s territory, the conflict provoked in Ukraine and the recent panic and fighting words by some European politicians of the highest rank.
In general, there is reason to draw some alarming analogies. If one wishes, one can find something similar to the periods leading up to both World Wars I and II.
In the face of continuing geopolitical uncertainty, the leaders in both Germany and Japan have apparently decided not to rush into defining the future of their own bilateral relations and reflect on what is happening in the world at large for the time being. Isn’t this what the “sluggishness” of the Japanese-German “2+2 format” has to do with it?
However, all leading participants in the present stage of the “Great Game” need to act decisively and not only reflect on it, in order to prevent another actualization of either of the two (implemented in the last century, equally catastrophic) “scenarios” for the resolution of the growing turbulence. And they need to do it right now.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”