10.05.2014 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Shinzo Abe tests the waters in Europe

2068Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s European tour set to hit a number of countries along with the EU and NATO headquarters between May 1 and May 9, 2014 is an important stage in the “great maneuvers” currently unfolding as part of the new global game. Shinzo Abe’s visit is similar to other trips undertaken by heads of other leading nations over the last month and a half. These included the visit to four European countries by Chinese President Xi Jinping (March 22 – April 1), the Asian tour by American President Barack Obama (April 23-29) and the Washington visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel (May 2).

A mutual testing of the waters is taking place during these meetings between key players where they probe each other’s stances on both age-old problems and recent issues. The overall situation in the world is becoming more alarming, and although the biggest threat to world stability is currently coming out of the Eastern Asian region, the sudden heightened tensions in the form of the Ukrainian crisis are making the situation in Europe uneasy as well.

The overall picture of the global game currently looks like a game of poker in an old aristocratic salon. A few gentlemen with their cards tightly pressed against their chest are intently peering into the eyes of their partners, attempting to guess their hands and what they’re ready to bet.

However, it is still too early to eliminate the possibility that the relatively harmless card game could quickly turn into an old-style western cowboy classic. The final scene is usually along an old dirt road in a beat-up desert town, where a few unshaven fellows gather opposite one another on each end of the street. They, too, are intently staring into their opponents’ eyes, yet they are no longer armed with cards, but with colts in unfastened holsters. It was exactly 100 years ago that a similar transformation in the geopolitical game happened in Europe.

Before leaving for Europe, Shinzo Abe was able to once again “synchronise his watch” with his key ally during Barack Obama’s visit to Tokyo, where they primarily discussed the vital Japanese problem of a stronger China.

The level of current tensions in the relations between China and Japan can be illustrated, at the very least, with the fact that both sides have ceased communications at the government level. Even at international forums where such communication cannot be avoided, the leaders of both countries chat about the weather without even sitting down. This divide happened in the summer of 2012 when three of the five contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands were bought out from a certain “private owner”. China then responded that “Japan is purchasing that which is not her own”.

This is why, when the American stance pertaining to the “Chinese problem” is relatively clear, it is especially important for Tokyo to get a feel for China’s weight on the European continent while also stimulating closer ties between Japan itself and leading members of the EU. China and Europe’s mutual aspirations of developing the already large-scale trading and economic relations were already demonstrated during Xi Jinping’s European tour which happened a month before Shinzo Abe’s trip to Europe.

It appears that Japan harbours no illusions with respect to this aspect and the only answer seems to be to develop all of the aspects of their own relations with the Europeans. During the already completed part of his European visit, the Japanese Prime Minister mainly focused on various aspects of the trade and economic sphere of these relations and, in particular, cooperation with leading European nations on long-term nuclear energy projects.

It should be noted, however, that in recent years, increasingly more attention is devoted towards the aspects of defence, where the key Japanese national partners are Great Britain and France. However, during the visit to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Shinzo Abe noted the necessity to further develop Japan’s relations with the world’s leading military and political union as a single entity.

It is important to note that China is also interested in further strengthening ties with the Europeans in the area of defence. However, this is made difficult due to the prohibition on selling weapons to China that was agreed upon by the western powers, headed by the U.S., after the notorious events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square; a prohibition that is in effect to this day. In the middle of the last decade, Washington curbed any European attempts at renewing the sale of weapons to Beijing.

Nevertheless, European companies at times ship systems with elements of so-called “dual-purpose technology” to China. Japan has expressed its displeasure with these cases numerous times. One particular case was when Japan complained to the French President Francois Hollande after China was sold a system of landing “civil” helicopters on the decks of “civil” vessels.

As has already happened in South-Eastern Asia, the Middle East and Africa, the European continent could, too, turn into an arena for a Japanese-Chinese economic battle. To strengthen its positions in Europe, Japan is especially focused on the prospects of signing a free trade agreement with the EU. Talks about this agreement began in April of 2013. At a press conference with Shinzo Abe, Angela Merkel expressed her wishes that this agreement could be signed next year. Experts note that, as of today, members of the future agreement currently make up roughly 40% of the global GDP.

Shinzo Abe’s trip to Europe is a worthy reason to discuss the topic of similarities and differences in the current global stance of Japan and Germany, that is, two countries that ended up on the losing side after World War II where they fought as allies. The fact that both countries are global economic leaders today increasingly leads them into the very small circle of the leading global players. Due to this, it is tempting to forecast a repeat of the pre-war situation, one of the main features of which was the Japan-German military and political alliance.

However, the cyclical repetitiveness of history never fully recreates the environment that was present during the previous cycle. The fundamentally new current situation is founded on the fact that China is acting as a second great power and on the different assessments that this leads to in Japan and in Germany.

Despite the fact that China is Japan’s main trading partner, Japan still sees China as the main threat to its foreign policy interests as well as its security. This is why the problem of an additional military component in the economy is becoming more relevant for Japan as it still remains the foundation in upholding national interests.

In Germany, however, China’s rise to power in the global arena is not evaluated as even a potential threat and is not seen as a barrier to developing mutually beneficial trade and economic relations. One indicator of this is the abovementioned visit to Germany by China’s President Xi Jinping. It was a return visit after the triumphant trip of Angela Merkel to China in the fall of 2012.

Up until recently, the situation in Europe did not motivate Germany to significantly increase its military potential. Why should the country stress “the global community”, when, as it happens, with the help of its economic potential, Germany can still feel fairly comfortable in the new global game? This is why Berlin is currently completely oblivious to the obvious hints from across the ocean with respect to the necessity to play a bigger role in the issue of securing European safety.

Naturally, the tensions in Europe have soared since the bubble in Ukraine burst. However, it is difficult to see even any perspective barriers to a situation where all “interested parties” could combine forces to heal the present wound that has suddenly appeared on the European body, and without any special expenses for all the “healers”.

In relation to the situation in Ukraine, leaders from Japan and Germany have chosen their words carefully in agreeing to undertake certain measures against Russia “if necessary”. After Shinzo Abe’s visit, Merkel went to Washington on the next day to discuss, primarily, the same Ukrainian crisis with the American president.

The difference between Japan’s and Germany’s currently foreign policy standpoint has become increasingly clearer during Shinzo Abe’s statements at a press conference in Berlin. The Prime Minister basically stated that Japan “will not follow the German example” in assessing its participation in the Second World War.

This statement was practically the answer to the remark made in 2014 by Xi Jinping about the fact that Japan needs to pay attention to the German experience of fostering ties with its neighbours after the war. The Chinese leader meant Germany’s apology for the damage done to its neighbours during the war, her material compensation and the corresponding coverage of the events of the war in school textbooks.

In explaining Japan’s stance on the issue, Shinzo Abe pointed out the “significant differences” in the character of participation for both of the former allies, in their post-war history, but most importantly in their present foreign policy surroundings. China and South Korea immediately followed with negative evaluations of this statement.

The results of Shinzo Abe’s trip to Europe is just another piece of evidence that the ever growing potential for conflict in Eastern Asia is beginning to spread to other regions, including Europe.

Vladimir Terekhov, leading research fellow at the Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the Russian Institute of Strategic Research, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.