The German warship Bayern made a port call in Tokyo earlier this month after holding joint exercises with the Maritime Self-Defense Force in waters south of the nation’s capital.

The visit to Japan by the frigate, which began on Nov. 5, was the first for a German military vessel in some 20 years, and is part of a broader mission to show support for freedom of navigation and open societies in the Indo-Pacific region. On its return voyage, the warship plans to sail through the South China Sea where China has been making expansive claims and asserting its power.

Security cooperation between European and Asian allies of the United States has been expanding for the last several years, but Germany is not among the usual players in this regard as it is not actively engaged in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region, unlike the United Kingdom or France. That said, however, the world needs to pay attention to the security arrangements being made between Japan and Germany and their Indo-Pacific strategies for several reasons.

First, Europe and Asia’s security is interconnected in various ways. The shared alliance Japan and Germany have with the United States is the most obvious, but there are less visible links as well. For instance, a day after the Bayern’s arrival in Tokyo, German media reported that engines developed in Germany have been used in Chinese warships, circumventing the EU’s arms embargo against China.

Second, Japan and Germany host the most U.S. troops stationed abroad although their shared World War II historical legacy has restricted and limited the roles Tokyo and Berlin themselves have played in international security matters.

Moreover, although the neighbors of Germany and Japan no longer fear their re-militarization as much as in the past, they still have potential to play a major role in the global military balance of power.

Third, Japan and Germany have the third and fourth largest economies in the world, meaning their positions toward the United States and China have important implications for geopolitics and geoeconomics in the region. Germany’s Indo-Pacific strategy, in particular, will strongly influence that of the European Union, which recently issued its own strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

Fourth, over recent decades, their respective governments have garnered positive reputations in the global community, with Tokyo and Berlin being known as cautious and moderate actors when it comes to diplomacy. This is important in relation to China, because many countries — even those who have strong concerns about Beijing’s behavior within and outside its territory — are reluctant to antagonize the economic powerhouse. Germany’s role as a judge of the China threat is particularly important because Japan is not considered to be a neutral observer due to its maritime territorial disputes with China.

Japan since August 2007 has been a trailblazer in implementing an Indo-Pacific strategy whereas Germany issued its “Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific” only in September 2020. Both countries’ regional strategies emphasize universal values such as human rights and rules-based order.

Geographical and historical differences, however, also create certain differences between them. For instance, Tokyo’s concerns about the disputes in the South China Sea are clearly visible in Japan’s strategic documents despite the government’s careful diplomatic rhetoric that is a result of its own difficulties with China in the East China Sea. The 2020 German policy guideline mentions China numerous times (62 to be exact in 68 pages), but its lack of criticism toward the Asian giant is striking. It is worth noting that Germany proposed to have the Bayern make a port call in Shanghai as well to make its mission more palatable for China — an overture that Beijing rejected.

Going forward, Germany’s attitude toward China is likely to harden and become closer to that of Japan, according to various public opinion polls. A 2020 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that negative views of China are spreading across many countries, and unfavorable views of China have reached their highest level in Germany (71%) since it started asking the question in Germany in 2005.

According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, 47% of Germans in 2021 regarded China as a rival or adversary that is in conflict with Europe; furthermore, 52% of Germans said that the EU should strongly criticize China when the latter violates human rights, democratic values or the rule of law — exceeding the average of 45% for the 12 European countries surveyed.

In a 2021 survey by the Korber Foundation, 76% of Germans answered that Germany should support EU sanctions against China even if it harms German economic interests. The central European country under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership was criticized for prioritizing economic ties with China. It seems, however, that the German public is ready for its government to take a more critical approach toward Beijing.

Japan and Germany are unlikely to engage in any form of large-scale defense cooperation, but their indirect strategic ties, military potentials, large economies and political reputations make them important to each other in Indo-Pacific geopolitics. Whether they need to strengthen resistance against China’s growing influence or try and prevent the rivalry between the United States and China from spiraling out of control,Tokyo and Berlin will find in each other a valuable partner.

Tongfi Kim is an assistant professor at Vesalius College and the Center for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy at Brussels School of Governance. Christoph Lhotka is an international affairs student at Brussels School of Governance.

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