What could China learn from Japan?

Merkel in Japan : What Germany can learn from Japan

Can the liberal order be saved - and who are the allies of Europe and Germany in this goal? The EU's free trade agreement with Japan came into force on Friday. It creates the largest single market in the world. Japan and the EU represent a third of global economic power.

Angela Merkel is now visiting Japan for two days: a country whose economic successes three or four decades ago fascinated the world. Today the German and European public pay little attention to Japan because it is said to be aging, stagnating and having lost its dynamism.

It is worth taking a look right now. Japan finds answers to the crises of the international order and thus becomes Europe's ideal ally.

In a jungle world they are inferior

Yes, they still exist: societies that rely on binding rules and contracts for international dealings, from trade to territorial and border conflicts to arms control. States that recognize that in a world of jungle laws and national egoisms they will be harmed - yes, possibly perish.

Japan and the EU have common interests: They are not major military powers. They will not prevail in a world in which the law of the strong triumphs over the strength of the law. But they have some influence on world affairs thanks to their technical advantage and their economic weight. This is the aim of the EU's free trade agreement with Japan.

Their success, their prosperity and thus also their social peace are based on the previous contractual system, which guarantees the free exchange of goods and services on the one hand and protects intellectual property on the other.

That is why they have an almost existential interest in the rule-based order being respected. It is threatened: by Russia, by China and, more recently, by the US because they have a president who raises doubts that he will defend the liberal order to the same extent as before.

How to save the rule-based order

China's rise is also due to the fact that Beijing likes to take advantage of the free trade regime, but does not allow these rights and market access in its own country in the same way.

In order to demand reciprocity and to protect the weaker neighbors in Asia from Chinese pressure, the USA and Japan negotiated a Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement (TPP) during Barack Obama's administration.

Twelve states agreed on minimum standards for wages, protection at work, social issues, the environment and intellectual property. In the long term, it is hoped, China will not be able to evade this standard either, if the others adhere to it. And this is all the more important because in the 21st century the Pacific will replace the Atlantic as the main economic area on earth.

But Trump campaigned against such free trade agreements because they allegedly disadvantage the United States. He resigned from TPP. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Trump twice in the weeks between his election and taking office to change his mind - in vain.

But he did not give up, but pursued Plan B. Within a few months, Japan organized a TPP-11 with the remaining states. It doesn't have the same pressure as a TPP with the US because it lacks the largest economy in the region. But it is a signal: the rule-based order can assert itself even if the USA fails as a guarantor, provided that other leadership takes over.

This spirit should be a model for Germany and Europe. They often still lack a clear course on how to assert their interests against China. Out of consideration for the respective national business interests, Beijing can divide them apart. They hesitate how seriously they should take the risks of approving the Chinese IT group Huawei for 5G networks.

Rely on contracts and strengthen the defense at the same time

Allegedly suffering from an aging population and a lack of dynamism, Japan also demonstrated its willingness to adapt to new realities in other areas. After the militarist empire had been defeated and destroyed in World War II, the country had given itself a pacifist constitution.

Like Europe, Japan relied on the USA as a protective power after 1945. In the past few years, Japan has changed its stance on the military in response to the military threat posed by China and North Korea.

The defense budget has been increasing continuously for seven years. In December the government commissioned two aircraft carriers, the first since 1945. They are equipped with stealth bombers from the USA. At the same time, Japan is pushing for diplomatic initiatives for arms control and the implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This unexcited dualism would also do Germany and Europe good: we need a multilateral alliance for a rule-based order, but we do not turn a blind eye to the threat posed by their opponents and take countermeasures just in case.

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