T he question of how to maintain balanced relations with China and the United States will be Japan’s major diplomatic challenge in the coming decades, and the recent nuclear test by North Korea may in fact provide a good chance for Tokyo and Beijing to cement their ties.

Those were among the observations made by five veteran journalists from Germany who took part in a symposium at Keidanren Kaikan in Tokyo on Oct. 20.

China figured prominently in the discussion, with the participants citing it as one of the common challenges facing Japan and Germany — both of which achieved miraculous growth after their defeat in World War II, similarly stagnated in the 1990s and are today weighing the implications of globalization.

They also discussed Japan’s still troubled ties with China in light of Germany’s postwar reconciliation with its neighbors who were invaded by Nazi Germany during World War II.

The symposium was organized by Keizai Koho Center under the theme, “Fate of Japan and Germany/EU — the view of German journalists.” Yuichiro Yamagata, senior writer for Toyo Keizai Inc., served as moderator.

“We can see the recent crisis over North Korea’s nuclear test as a chance for Japan and China to increase mutual cooperation, because the interests of the two countries converge on this issue,” said Gudrun Dometeit, foreign section editor in the Munich-based news-journal Focus.

While Japan’s key ally, the United States, hopes to ultimately see the current North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il toppled, that scenario could lead to instability in Northeast Asia and would not be in Japan’s best interests, Dometeit told the audience.

Consequences from a possible collapse of the North Korean regime — although hard to predict — will not necessarily be positive, she said.

It may lead to unification of the divided Korea, but that process would likely be much more difficult and costly than the unification of Germany, she said, adding that it could be decades before the situation will stabilize on the Korean Peninsula.

West and East Germany united in 1990 after that symbol of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, fell the previous year, but integration of the less developed, former communist East continues to be a drag on the nation’s economy even today.

North Korean ripples

A collapse of the North Korean regime would have far-reaching regional implications, and a close dialogue between Japan and China would be essential in finding a solution in such a case, Dometeit said.

Dometeit said she was surprised to see Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit China in early October — right after his inauguration on Sept. 26 — because Abe was widely depicted as a hawk and nationalist by the German media.

Abe’s visit — which came on the eve of North Korea’s nuclear test on Oct. 9 — is believed to have broken the diplomatic ice that built up under his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Visits by Koizumi to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals among the ranks of Japan’s war dead, complicated Tokyo’s relations with its Asian neighbors, who are still plagued by the memory of Japanese wartime aggression.

Dometeit noted that Germany’s postwar efforts at reconciliation with France may provide some clue as Japan tries to overcome its bitter history with China — although she acknowledged that a simple comparison with the European experience may be difficult given the cultural differences between Europe and Asia.

Marc Beise, deputy editor in chief of economic and financial department of Sueddeutsche Zeitung, said it must not be forgotten that Germany’s reconciliation with France progressed very slowly over the decades since the end of WWII.

And problems do exist between the two countries today despite the decades-long efforts, said the editor of the Munich-based newspaper.

Dieter Schnaas, chief reporter at Berlin-based weekly WirtschaftsWoche, noted that China poses a common challenge for both Japan and Germany as they try to adjust to cross-border competitive pressures of globalization.

But while China is often seen as a threat to jobs in Germany, Japan seems to be ahead of Germany on this issue, having established positive economic relationship with the emerging Asian giant, he said.

Japan and China should clarify their positions on several outstanding international trade issues that involve East Asia, Schnaas said. Those issues are a rather chaotic mixture that include the stalled trade liberalization talks under the World Trade Organization, free trade negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and bilateral free trade agreements.

In the next 20 years, it would be a major challenge for Japan to maintain a balance between its traditional alliance with the United States and its ties with the rest of Asia — and with China in particular, he said.

Japan cannot afford to face isolation in Asia, and it must keep its relations with China in harmony with its commitments to the U.S., he added.

Schnaas said that both Japan and Germany need to determine whether China is just another Asian economy whose only difference is its huge size — or whether it is by nature different from other emerging economies.

If China looks set to develop into a power that not only outperforms advanced economies in labor-intensive industries like textile but also compete in high value-added sectors, industrial economies like Japan and Germany will have to do more to stay competitive, he added.

Low birthrates

Turning to other issues confronting the two countries, Anna von Muenchhausen-Frey, deputy head of education and society section at Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper, said Germany has a lot to do to improve conditions for working women with small children — a major theme in the country’s efforts to cope with a low birthrate.

Both Japan and Germany face declining birthrates and an aging populations. One problem in Germany, Muenchhausen noted, is that the often conservative public has a negative view of women taking up jobs while keeping their small children at day-care centers and other institutions.

About 34 percent of women in Germany have jobs, but most of them are in part-time employment, she said. Career opportunities are limited for women with children, and it costs a lot for a mother with kids under 12 to maintain her job while raising children, she added.

Muenchhausen suggested that both Japan and Germany need to open themselves more to foreigners — not just immigrant labor to make up for declines in domestic labor force, but investors such as venture capital — as an element that adds to diversity.

Germany is “slightly ahead” of Japan in accepting immigrant labor, she said. She urged Japan to beef up its English education to eliminate the language barrier for communication.

Robert Finn Mayer-Kuckuk, a reporter with Das Handelsblatt economic daily, meanwhile said Japan has moved ahead of Germany by introducing various reforms during Koizumi’s five years in office.

Germany still trails Japan in improving employment prospects for its workers, with the unemployment rate still over 10 percent compared with 4 percent in Japan, Kuckuk said.

Although the grand coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats under Chancellor Angela Merkel in theory has a great potential to move reforms forward, policy differences between the coalition partners have hampered necessary reforms in medical insurance and other key issues, he said.

Germany needs politicians with a strong leadership capable of overriding internal opposition to implement reforms, just as Koizumi overrode heavy resistance from within his Liberal Democratic Party to enact laws to privatize the state-run postal services, he added.