By Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel heads to Japan on Sunday for a two-day trip to forge an “alliance of multilateralists” who want to resist U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach to trade and China’s pursuit of narrow national interests.
Freed for now of the domestic coalition wrangling that dogged her for much of 2018, Merkel is throwing her weight into a foreign policy aimed at defending and refreshing the multilateral order on which German – and Japanese – fortunes rest.
Emboldened by Germany taking a seat on the U.N. Security Council for the next two years, she used an address to global leaders in Davos last week to advocate “win-win” outcomes in international relations.
To back up her words, Merkel is networking with like-minded leaders including Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, with whom she spoke recently, to defend their common interests in free trade, climate protection and multilateralism.
“The visit gives the chancellor the opportunity to strengthen the relationship with Japan,” a senior German government official said of the trip, which will see Merkel arrive in Tokyo on Monday and leave on Tuesday.
“… and (it) also gives both sides an opportunity to send a strong signal that we and Japan are maintaining a close and resilient partnership even under global political conditions that have become more difficult,” the official added.
As big exporters and the world’s third and fourth largest economies respectively, Japan and Germany have a mutual interest in preserving free trade – an issue sure to come up when Merkel and Abe discuss priorities for Japan’s G20 presidency on Monday.
Striking a similar tone to Merkel at Davos, Abe vowed in his speech there to use Japan’s leadership of the G20 economic powers this year to rebuild trust in the global trade system and foster consensus on ways to address climate change.
Merkel supports Abe’s approach, driven by the same interest in resolving trade frictions such as the bitter Sino-U.S. dispute that has disrupted the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars of goods and which threatens a sharp slowdown in global growth.
The two leaders have been drawn closer by global political dynamics that the German official said included “changes in U.S. politics” – code for Trump’s presidency – along with developments in China and “a challenge from the Russian side”.
However, Japan’s military dependence on the United States limits the scope for cooperation with Germany.
Japan is not expected, for example, to join a new European mechanism for non-dollar trade with Iran to avert U.S. sanctions – an initiative aimed at keeping alive a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran that Trump abandoned last year.
“But what favors the new cooperation is the reduced trust in the reliability of the United States under Trump – both in Europe and in Japan,” said Hanns Hilpert, Japan expert at the SWP German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Merkel is taking representatives from 12 businesses with her on the trip, on which she will also meet Emperor Akihito. No commercial agreements are planned.
The trip coincides with the entering into force – from Feb. 1 – of an EU-Japan trade deal that removes duties and regulatory barriers and includes a commitment to the Paris climate accord, from which the United States withdrew in 2017.
In power since 2005, Merkel is focusing on securing a legacy of defending multilateralism in her fourth and last term in office but European and regional elections starting in May risk turning her attention back to domestic matters by mid-year.