Germany’s Quest for Relevance in the Indo-Pacific
Berlin is seeking to expand its geopolitical focus across European boundaries and into the Indo-Pacific. The agenda is ambitious: to alter China’s hegemonic aspirations and secure future German prosperity.
Tension in the Indo-Pacific
The Indo-Pacific region is currently witnessing a series of tensions. The increasing relevance of the region due to rapid economic growth and China’s military build-up has made it conceivable that these tensions may turn into severe conflicts in years to come.
Germany, and indeed the European Union, has not yet had a targeted, systematic, and coordinated policy approach for the region. This will now change.
Last Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet – and thus the government – passed Indo-Pacific guidelines and joined the Indo-Pacific geopolitical club. It is a significant step that could transform Germany’s role in the world, at least if a long-term, materially backed commitment follows the noble declarations of intent.
Maas Gets It
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is cognizant of the region’s relevance and rightfully alluded that Germany’s prosperity and geopolitical influence in the coming decades were based on “working together” with the states of the Indo-Pacific. It is a statement that is a testimony for an Indo-Pacific German foreign policy.
According to Maas, the main aim was to work with democratic partners willing to cooperate to enforce international rules against the “law of the strong” in a region with established and emerging powers such as Japan, China, and India and where the shaping of the future’s international order could be decided. Germany seeks to help shape this order.
Maas’s call to leave no room for the “law of strongest” refers primarily to China. In the South China Sea, Beijing claims sovereignty in violation of international law, which threatens to enforce with military means. Moreover, Taiwan also feels increasingly threatened.
Berlin’s Diverging Path from Washington
Washington currently acts as a power-balance. The US is thus the last line of defense for China’s regional hegemony. Considering the ongoing trade war between Beijing and Washington, a real conflict is no longer a fantasy. It is a looming scenario Berlin sees with “great concern,” as Maas stated.
Democratic states in the region such as Australia and India have long been asking for Europe’s commitment against Chinese claims to hegemony and intimidation attempts. Their argument states that the seas’ freedom was also in the interests of Europe and its economy.
The latter seems to have finally been realized by Europe, or at least parts of it. Besides its own agenda Berlin is also committed to pushing for a European strategy for the Indo-Pacific “together with our EU partners, especially France,” Maas said. Maas has long been emphasizing the importance of common philosophy in Europe’s China policy.
Upcoming EU-China Summit
On September 14, the EU-China summit will take place. It will be an important date as Beijing has been attempting to divide Europe to gain more power on the continent. Herein lies a significant crux: the continent is already divided as far as China is concerned.
Great Britain, for example, has established itself as Europe’s hawk. It has excluded the People’s Republic from expanding the super-fast 5G mobile network for fear of espionage. London also quickly suspended the extradition treaty with Hong Kong after China passed the controversial Security Law and offered visas and residence rights to three million Hong Kong citizens.
Other states such as Hungary, Italy, or Greece are hoping for Chinese investments into their respective economies and, therefore, insist on restraint in a European China policy.
Around two-thirds of the world’s sea trade is facilitated via shipping routes in the Indo-Pacific. German trade with Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand has grown steadily.
Germany’s Future Footprint in the Indo-Pacific
Germany’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had called for Germany to have a military presence pronounced in the region several times but met resistance from her party’s coalition partner SPD. Now, the SPD’s ministers have also agreed to strengthen security policy cooperation with actors in the region.
Germany’s agenda in the Indo-Pacific will include participation in security forums, participation in exercises in the region, joint evacuation planning, the posting of liaison officers, and various maritime presence forms. Moreover, Germany strives for more cooperation in climate change, human rights, free trade, and digitization with the democratic nations in the regions.
Nevertheless: despite the change of course in Germany’s China policy, in the end, it will depend on how united Europe is on the China question as a continent.