Berlin has long hailed its values-based partnership with Japan. Speaking in Tokyo on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was careful to reaffirm the message. The two countries, he said, were bound by their respect for democracy, free trade and a rule-based world order with multilateral organizations.
The difference this time is that, with such values under fire around the world, Japan is listening. And the words are being fleshed out with action.
Mr. Maas used his Japan visit to call for an “alliance of multilateralists.” He said participating countries should join forces to take responsibility in international organizations, push for international law to be respected and fill the vacuums left by the departure of some nations from the world stage.
The world was undergoing major upheavals “that are challenging Japan in the same way as Germany,” he said. “We need a German-Japanese alliance in this global political situation.”
Cooperation could include trade policy, the development of technologies such as autonomous driving and artificial intelligence and economic cooperation in Africa, he said. That would be a new level of collaboration, he told Handelsblatt.
With US President Donald Trump’s America First policies challenging both countries, joint trade interests are a particular focus right now. “Free global trade is a pillar of this partnership,” said Mr. Maas. Japan and the EU agreed a huge free-trade deal earlier this month, representing about a third of global trade and the biggest the bloc has ever signed.
His comments came before the announcement that the EU and US had agreed a tariff war truce. But Mr. Maas later referred to the agreement to work toward lower tariffs, adding: “This is not a final result, but it has made a positive result more likely.” In other words, no reason for a full detente.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needed the EU trade deal. Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris climate agreement were a slap in the face for Japan. Losing the US from the TTP was a particular blow as Japan had viewed the planned multilateral free trade zone of 12 countries as an economic and strategic counterweight to China.
Adding insult to injury, Mr. Trump slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, even though Mr. Abe had tried to foster a personal friendship with him, including by posing as his golf buddy. Now, the US president wants bilateral trade talks with Japan to force it to reduce its huge trade surplus with the US.
But the mounting pressure from the White House is triggering increasing defiance in Tokyo. For example, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga signalled this week that Japan did not want to discuss a bilateral free-trade zone with the US. And Mr. Abe pulled off the diplomatic coup of persuading the 11 remaining TPP states to go ahead with a new alliance, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
It seems that the Art of the Deal is not lost on Japan or the EU, either.
Martin Kölling is Handelsblatt’s East Asia correspondent, covering Japan, North and South Korea and China from Tokyo. To contact the author: email@example.com