TOKYO -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe found common ground in their approach to the Ukraine crisis at a summit in Tokyo on March 9, but failed to see eye to eye on Japan's handling of its wartime past.
At the summit, Abe detailed recent Chinese moves to assert claims in resource-rich waters near Japan. He stressed the need for countries in the region to follow maritime law. He also spoke with the chancellor about past abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korea.
Merkel, for her part, obliquely chided Abe, saying, "Coming to terms with the past is a prerequisite for reconciliation," in an apparent swipe at Japan's handling of historical disputes with its neighbors. She said the two leaders "discussed how a country should deal with horrible past crimes like the Holocaust."
The chancellor touched on Germany's relations with its neighbors in a speech before the summit. The country was able to reconcile with its neighbors after World War II, she said, because it faced history squarely and its neighbors accepted its pleas for reconciliation. Germany compensated wartime victims of its forced labor policies in Eastern Europe, while Japan focused on providing economic assistance to affected countries.
Merkel stressed the need for Japan to face up to its past, as Abe's planned war anniversary statement has continued to draw international attention. Germany has close economic ties with China, and Merkel does not want to see the Japanese prime minister exacerbate regional tensions with his August speech.
Grappling with the bear
The two leaders agreed to work together to restore stability in Ukraine and to continue talks with Russia to that end. Merkel, at a joint news conference after the meeting, denounced Moscow for violating Ukraine's territorial integrity. "Japan, Europe and the U.S. had no choice but to impose economic sanctions," she said.
Abe said it would be premature to bring Russia back into the Group of Eight club of leading industrialized countries. "We are not at a stage where G-8 nations, including Russia, could have a meaningful discussion," he said.
Germany has strong economic ties to Russia, relying on it for 40% of its energy. Japan is locked in a territorial dispute with Russia over a group of islands off the coast of Hokkaido, but that has not kept Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin from developing a personal rapport. Both Japan and Germany are less eager than the U.S. to impose punitive sanctions on Moscow and were keen to reach agreement on the matter ahead of the next Group of Seven summit in June.
The two leaders also touched on terrorism, which Merkel said will be a key topic at the G-7 summit, which will be held in Germany. She cited al-Qaida and the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram as growing threats.
Abe said Japan plans to boost humanitarian assistance to the Middle East. "We are concerned about the rise of extremism and recognize that extremism and Islam are different things," he said.
The two leaders agreed to work toward completing a broad outline for an economic partnership agreement between Japan and the European Union by the end of the year. Germany's auto industry is concerned about a possible flood of imports if auto tariffs are cut, while many European nations are pushing for a reduction in Japanese nontariff barriers in such sectors as railways. The March 9 summit could help move a trade deal forward.
The German chancellor last visited Japan in July 2008 for a G-8 summit in Lake Toya, Hokkaido, at a time when the two countries were collaborating on efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the countries have grown apart, due in large part to Japan's frequent changes in government and inability to engage with Europe.
In the meantime, Germany has leaned more heavily toward China, its largest Asian trade partner. Volkswagen, which is battling Toyota Motor to become the world's largest automaker, has had great success in the Chinese market. Beijing is also moving to deepen diplomatic ties with Germany, which has emerged as Europe's natural leader as British and French influence wanes.
"Japan and Germany share many values, including liberty and democracy, and we hope to collaborate on various issues," Abe said at the post-summit news conference. The Japanese prime minister will visit Germany for the G-7 in June, and Merkel will return to Japan next year. It is important for Tokyo to rebuild ties with Berlin, which has grown into a formidable global player. Easier said than done.