The German navy frigate Bayern docked in Tokyo on Friday, with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi declaring the first visit by a German warship in two decades to be an important demonstration of the security ties that bind the two nations.
The Bayern, which left Germany in August and is on a seven-month deployment, conducted exercises in waters off Tokyo on Thursday with vessels and aircraft from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. The vessel is scheduled to remain in Tokyo until November 12.
Kishi held talks with General Eberhard Zorn on Friday morning, with Germany’s top military commander stating that the deployment of the Bayern “is part of the demonstration of our Indo-Pacific guidelines.”
Germany’s Indo-Pacific engagement
Berlin has in recent months stepped up its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, after unveiling a new strategic approach to the region in September 2020.
That change in strategy reflects broader international concern about China’s growing clout and assertiveness in the region, notably in the South China Sea, where Beijing has unilaterally occupied and fortified islands that are claimed by other countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.
There is also concern about Beijing’s attitude toward human rights and the rule of law in the region.
Kishi welcomed the arrival of the 4,400-ton warship in Tokyo, saying, “In the East China Sea and the South China Sea, we see unilateral attempts to change the status quo based on force and these problems are a common concern not only in Asia but also the rest of the world, including Europe.”
Tokyo deepening security alliances
With Beijing showing no indication of toning down its aggressiveness toward other governments in the region, Tokyo is working hard to deepen existing security alliances and make new friends.
Japan has also hiked its defense spending in recent years and now ranks among the world’s top 10 military powers, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Officially, though, Tokyo still limits itself to self-defense and has banned first strikes under its post World War II pacifist constitution.
The ship’s visit is ‘an important turning point’ in pursuing a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific,’ said Defense Minister Kishi
“This is a continuation of what we have seen with other partners in recent months, with warships from France, the Netherlands and Britain all invited to the region as part of Japan’s efforts to bolster its existing alliance with the US with additional partners,” said James Brown, an associate professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.
“From Tokyo’s perspective, the more warships from European nations or other democratic partners that come to the region the better, as it sends the message to China that Japan is not alone, it is not isolated and that it will not be pushed around,” he told DW.
Shanghai visit canceled
In September, the Chinese government reversed an earlier plan for the Bayern to visit Shanghai as part of its visit to the region.
A government spokesperson said ships operating in the South China Sea — which Beijing now largely claims as its own waters — were “provoking incidents” and “creating contradictions.”
The Bayern’s route included a stop in Vietnam which necessitated crossing the South China Sea.
While the Shanghai visit was meant to defuse tensions between the two countries — and Berlin went out of its way to ensure that its vessel would not traverse the highly sensitive Taiwan Strait between mainland China and an island that Beijing still views as a breakaway province — the Chinese government has apparently taken offense.
Patrick Hein, a lecturer in political science at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said the Bayern’s visit to the region is “largely symbolic.”
“For Japan, the US, Australia and a number of other countries, this is just one small drill,” he said. “A single warship like this would not be able to fight by itself and it would be easy to see this as Germany showing that it wants to play a colonial role in the region, as it did in the past,” he said.
Refusing to permit the Bayern to dock in Shanghai was “a clear indication” that Beijing was unhappy with the route the warship took earlier in its deployment to East Asia. However, both sides will be keen to protect their close economic relationship and China is unlikely to consider a single naval vessel paying a brief visit to Tokyo to be “a major provocation,” Hein added.
‘Germany is much more cautious’
All the recent security and economic alliances that are focused on the Indo-Pacific region do have an element of being designed to keep China at arm’s length, analysts have said.
Nevertheless, the Bayern’s visit is not an issue like the recent AUKUS security agreement between the US, Australia and the UK, involving Canberra’s purchase of modern nuclear-powered submarines, or the Quad security arrangement that brings together Japan, the US, Australia and India, they underlined.
Germany may send more vessels to the region in the future, Brown said, but Berlin is highly unlikely to be a frequent and forceful visitor in the years to come.
“Germany is much more cautious than France or the UK about sending warships out here, for historical reasons and also due to domestic politics,” he said, stressing that Berlin is “much more reluctant to do anything that could antagonize China.”
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