Analysis

Germany Can Learn From Japan’s China Strategy

Berlin should import policies from another economic power in a similar predicament.

By , a managing editor at the Rhodium Group.
Japan’s presidential aircraft lands in Germany.
The presidential aircraft of then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie—with small national flags flying—arrives at Rostock-Laage Airport in Germany on June 6, 2007. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

One of the biggest foreign-policy challenges for a new German government will be to find the right balance among economic priorities, national security interests, and the defense of democratic values in its relationship with China. In doing so, Germany can learn a lot from Japan, another country with deep economic ties to China that has grown increasingly wary of Beijing’s authoritarian shift at home and growing assertiveness abroad under Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Germany and Japan have much in common beyond their complex relationship with China. Both emerged defeated and devastated from World War II to become leading economic and technological powers. Both have strong pacifist currents running through their foreign policies. And both rely heavily on the United States for their security.

There are also crucial differences. Germany was on the front line of the old Cold War. Japan is on the front line of what may be a new one. Because of this, Japan has been quicker than Germany to adapt its national security approach to a new era, where the lines between trade, technology, security, and human rights are increasingly blurred.

One of the biggest foreign-policy challenges for a new German government will be to find the right balance among economic priorities, national security interests, and the defense of democratic values in its relationship with China. In doing so, Germany can learn a lot from Japan, another country with deep economic ties to China that has grown increasingly wary of Beijing’s authoritarian shift at home and growing assertiveness abroad under Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Germany and Japan have much in common beyond their complex relationship with China. Both emerged defeated and devastated from World War II to become leading economic and technological powers. Both have strong pacifist currents running through their foreign policies. And both rely heavily on the United States for their security.

There are also crucial differences. Germany was on the front line of the old Cold War. Japan is on the front line of what may be a new one. Because of this, Japan has been quicker than Germany to adapt its national security approach to a new era, where the lines between trade, technology, security, and human rights are increasingly blurred.

Back in 2013, then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe oversaw the most ambitious reorganization of Japan’s foreign and security apparatus since the World War II, creating a National Security Council and issuing the country’s first National Security Strategy. Several years later, he introduced an economic statecraft function in the National Security Council and established units in government ministries to focus on emerging security challenges.

In recent weeks, Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has gone one step further. Since taking office in early October, he created a new cabinet-level position—minister for economic security—that will coordinate government efforts to shore up supply chains, protect critical infrastructure, and counter economic coercion. The new post will be held by Takayuki Kobayashi, a 46-year-old up-and-comer who goes by the Twitter name “Kobahawk.”

Kishida has also asked Gen Nakatani, a former Japanese defense minister, to become his special advisor on human rights, a notable move since Japan has traditionally shied away from taking strong stances on human rights. Nakatani’s appointment has been explicitly linked to China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Over the past year, Japan has also become far more outspoken on Taiwan.

It is making these moves despite its geographic proximity to China and a close bilateral economic relationship which has bred diplomatic caution in past decades. Over 20 percent of Japan’s exports went to China in 2020, compared to roughly 8 percent for the United States and Germany. Tokyo faces a more delicate balancing act, in many ways, than either Washington or Berlin. Still, it has shown a readiness to adapt its approach to new geopolitical realities.

Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, who is poised to replace Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor next month, should take note. Germany’s own national security structures have failed to keep pace with a rapidly evolving geopolitical environment in which systemic rivalries play out in the digital realm.

In Merkel’s 16 years in office, the German Chancellery has nearly doubled in size and become the center of foreign policymaking in Berlin. But coordination among ministries, which in Germany’s political system are frequently led by politicians from rival parties, has often looked broken.

This was perhaps most evident in the debate over whether to include Chinese telecommunications group Huawei in Germany’s 5G mobile network—a policy choice with economic, technological, and security implications that demanded a whole-of-government response.

Instead, the German 5G decision dragged on for years, with ministers pursuing their own narrow agendas and the German Chancellery failing to chart a clear course and forge a consensus. In the end, Germany’s parliament became the decisive actor, forcing Merkel to accept far tighter restrictions than she would have liked.

Breaking down these silos should be a top priority for Scholz, who will be leading a potentially cumbersome three-way coalition with the environmentalist Greens and liberal Free Democrats.

As finance minister in the outgoing government, Scholz avoided taking clear positions on the big China-related policy questions, including the role of Huawei. During the German election campaign he preached continuity in foreign policy. The Greens and Free Democrats, however, have been critical of Merkel’s approach and are seeking a harder line, particularly on human rights.

The risk is a cacophony of voices without an overarching strategy that brings coherence to the often conflicting economic, national security, and values priorities that are at the center of today’s foreign-policy decision-making.

According to early readouts from German coalition negotiations, the parties have decided against creating a robust National Security Council like the one introduced by Japan nearly a decade ago. But the new government should consider more regular meetings and an expanded scope for the Bundessicherheitsrat, a body that has traditionally focused on the narrow issue of arms exports.

On the positive side, the parties appear to agree on Germany’s need for a National Security Strategy. Other adjustments should be considered, including a greater focus on the Indo-Pacific within the German Chancellery and merging the German foreign and economic development ministries to better align aid spending with strategic priorities.

Structures can only achieve so much. Without a clear vision from the top, an overhaul of Germany’s national security apparatus is unlikely to resolve Berlin’s silo problems.

But the moves Japan has made over the past few years point a path forward for Germany in delivering more nimble institutional responses to the challenges posed by China. Structural changes can also have an important signaling effect, making clear to Beijing where German foreign-policy priorities lie.

Under Merkel, strategic clarity in relation to China was too often absent. The formation of a new government provides a window of opportunity to rethink the structures that undergird German foreign policy and deliver a more joined-up approach. With an eye on Japan, Scholz and his coalition partners should seize that opportunity.

Noah Barkin is a managing editor at the Rhodium Group and senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?