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Interview

Germany seeks role in shaping Indo-Pacific order: foreign minister

Maas outlines complex relationship with China as both partner and rival

"More than anywhere else, the shape of tomorrow's international order will be decided in the Indo-Pacific," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Nikkei.   © Pool via Reuters

TOKYO -- Germany aims to become a player in the Indo-Pacific and further its interests in a region set to only grow in geopolitical significance, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Nikkei.

Germany has been shifting its stance to the region, approving new Indo-Pacific policy guidelines in September that move away from its previous China-centric approach, and plans to dispatch a naval frigate to the region as early as this summer.

"More than anywhere else, the shape of tomorrow's international order will be decided in the Indo-Pacific," Maas said in a written interview. "We want to play a role in shaping this order and in strengthening rules-based international cooperation."

Germany looks to become a force for stability in a region that, while increasingly integrated economically, faces mounting risks. China's aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea have created friction with neighboring countries, while Japan, the U.S., Australia and India -- the security grouping known as the "Quad" -- have banded together to promote a "free and open Indo-Pacific."

Though Europe is physically distant from the region, that does not mean there is no connection.

"For some time now, the international balance of power has been gradually tipping towards the Indo-Pacific region," Maas said. He sees active involvement in the region as advantageous for Germany, citing interests including open markets and shipping routes, supply chains and climate issues.

Of particular concern to Berlin is China, which Maas described as a "partner, competitor and strategic rival."

The rivalry "is especially evident in our fundamentally different standpoints on human rights and the rule of law," he said. "We address human rights problems in China firmly and unequivocally on a regular basis."

Germany has criticized China's crackdown in Hong Kong and its treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority.

But Maas also stressed that the relationship cannot be solely negative. "Our economies are closely interconnected," he said. "It wouldn't help anyone if we were to cut these ties once more."

Germany was a driving force behind the investment agreement signed last year by China and the European Union, which Maas said will "provide our companies better market access and fairer business conditions in China."

As for the U.S., Maas expects relations between Berlin and Washington to "quickly improve" under President Joe Biden after having soured under his predecessor Donald Trump.

"On the very day of his inauguration, Joe Biden announced that the United States intended to assume a responsible international role once more," Maas said, citing moves to rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement.

The foreign minister spoke with Nikkei on Sunday, the 160th anniversary of the friendship and trade treaty that established diplomatic relations between Japan and Prussia. He spoke highly of the modern relationship between Tokyo and Berlin.

"Japan is traditionally one of our closest partners in the region: we share values -- democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights," Maas said.

The two are "natural partners in the efforts to preserve and expand the international order," he said.

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