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Tokyo instead of Kyiv: Why Scholz is visiting Japan right now

Tokyo instead of Kyiv
Why Scholz is visiting Japan right now

Arms shipments and gas embargoes are hotly debated in Europe, while Putin threatens retaliatory strikes against NATO countries that interfere in the war. Meanwhile, Olaf Scholz flies to Japan. Why is the Federal Chancellor making this visit now of all times?

In Germany, it is just before 8 a.m. when Chancellor Olaf Scholz lands at Tokyo Airport with his government plane “Theodor Heuss”. In just over an hour, the Bundestag in Berlin will be debating the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine. The coalition factions and the Union agreed on a joint application shortly before the Chancellor’s departure, thus preventing a showdown in Parliament. Nevertheless, the topic remains controversial, and not all questions have been clarified for a long time. Will heavy main battle tanks also be supplied after the already approved Gepard anti-aircraft tanks? What about artillery pieces? What about training and ammunition? How far can you go without being seen as a war party by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin boss has just threatened to react to NATO countries that are meddling in the war.

Nevertheless, Scholz decided to travel to Japan, where the journey takes longer than the stay. Russia and Ukraine are circumnavigated, via Kazakhstan and China to Beijing. A total of 28 hours on the plane for 20 hours on site. Scholz is worth it. Even now, while war is raging in Europe. There are a few good reasons for the trip, which has been planned for many weeks, which also have to do with Ukraine.

The G7 chairman visits the partner countries

Japan is one of the economically strongest democracies in the world, which have come together in the “Group of Seven”. Germany is chairing this group this year and is hosting the G7 summit at Schloss Elmau in Bavaria in June. Pre-summit visits to partner countries are common. Scholz has already visited all three European partners and the USA. Japan is the only Asian member in the group and will take over the presidency next year.

Japan is involved in sanctions against Russia

The G7 is also closely coordinating on sanctions against Russia. Japan is one of only three Asian countries to have punitive measures against Moscow – the other two are South Korea and Singapore. Tokyo refrained from doing so in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea.

Military equipment for Ukraine despite pacifism

Japan itself has banned arms deliveries in a pacifist post-war constitution. It is a big step for the country that for the first time it has made equipment available to a warring faction, including bulletproof vests, steel helmets, winter combat clothing, protective clothing against chemical weapons and commercial drones for reconnaissance – all directly from the stocks of its own military. And all this without major public discussion like in Germany.

Fears of a Ukraine scenario in Asia

Japan is also otherwise more involved in the war than she would like. A scenario similar to that in Ukraine is feared in the Indo-Pacific region. The elephant in the room is the democratic Taiwan claimed by China. A violent, unilateral change in the status quo, as Russia is trying to do in Ukraine, “should not be allowed in East Asia,” says Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, referring to China’s growing thirst for power. “The decisions and actions of the international community, including Japan, determine the future trend of the international community.”

Scholz leaves system rivals China on the left

In Japan, the Scholz visit is seen as a political signal, especially with regard to the menacingly powerful neighbor China. For Scholz’ predecessors Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schröder, it was still mandatory for the first inaugural visit to the region to take place in Beijing. Scholz is now opting for the economically strongest democracy on the continent instead of the system rival. This should also be noted very carefully in Beijing. In order to cover up resentment about the Chancellor’s visit to Japan, Beijing could easily refer to the technical problems with the quarantine when entering China, which would have made Scholz’s normal visit to Beijing more difficult. But at the Winter Olympics, China’s leadership in Beijing had no problem receiving a number of foreign heads of government who had ignored the calls for a boycott – above all Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Merz takes note of the trip “with extreme surprise”

But there is still criticism of the trip. The head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Friedrich Merz, said he was “extremely astonished” about the chancellor’s visit to Japan during this important week of parliamentary sessions. The CDU leader added: “We think that’s inappropriate. We have important issues to discuss in the German Bundestag.”

Ambassador Melnyk calls visit “a good sign”

On the other hand, praise comes from someone who is otherwise also quite harsh with Scholz. The Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk considers the visit to Japan to be sensible. “The fact that Chancellor Scholz is flying to Tokyo is also a good sign, because Japan strongly supports us as a G7 member,” he says. “The G7 is very important for Ukraine, especially now during the German presidency in this body.”

But Melnyk also thinks that one of the chancellor’s next trips could be to Kyiv – especially now that something is happening with arms deliveries. “Chancellor Scholz could send a strong signal, for example, if he came to Kyiv with President Macron to set a clear example on the subject of more modern heavy weapons.”

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