Digital Snapshot

by Katja Theodorakis

Lines in the Water: German and European Security Engagement in the Indo-Pacific

(and Why Every Dash Matters)

Digital Snapshot #11/21

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

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Germany is sending a ship to the Indo-Pacific – and it’s a big deal. The German frigate ‘Bayern’ (Bavaria) is expected in Perth in October as part of a journey flanked by engagements with allied nations and organizations (after participating in Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean and the EU’s Operation Atalanta off Somalia, the Bayern will travel through the Strait of Malacca to Australia. On the return journey, it will participate in the United Nations’ sanctions against North Korea, and then pass through the South China Sea).  To the conventional eye, this may seem trivial, or even insignificant, a largely ceremonial move without real strategic effects. A US adviser, in a much-debated tweet , even stated that “European ships in the Pacific will do little to change the military balance of power there. Much better for European navies to focus on Europe (and the Middle East), so the United States can focus more of its attention eastward. Pure symbolism only goes so far now.”

The decision to send the frigate is indeed a symbolic act, intended to signal European strategic commitment to the region. This is part of a wider European turning and tilting to the Indo-Pacific, that reflects recognition of the need to come to terms with the changing geopolitical realities and their geographic location.  France published a security strategy paper on the Indo-Pacific in 2019, through its Ministry of Defence. Germany’s Policy Guidelines on the Indo-Pacific, issued by the Federal Foreign Office) followed in September 2020 and the Netherland’s ‘Non-Paper’ (a shorter a Policy Memo) in November 2020. The UK is tilting to the Indo-Pacific through its ambitious Integrated Review that seeks to position Britain as “the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific”. And now the EU Council of the European Union just released a 10-page conclusion on the “EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, tasking the EU Commission and EU High Representative to propose the complete strategy by September.

Differences exist in the weighting of individual policy areas, shaped by the respective nation’s/body’s interests, priorities and strategic cultures. While the French strategy has a stronger focus on security and defence policy, the German and Dutch policy papers as well as the Integrated Review and the EU strategy are more broadly focused. They can, to varying degrees) be seen as catch-all documents that stretch across a panoply of issues – from human rights, the rule of law, multilateralism, connectivity, and free trade to climate change and cultural diplomacy.  In particular, the German paper focuses on the diversification of supply chains, which includes access and fair competition, as well as sustainability. There is an emphasis on free trade agreements and strengthening the multilateral trade system through WTO mechanisms; ASEAN and related multilateral organisations are highlighted as core building blocks of this order. This way, the Policy Guidelines can be seen as a reflection of Germany’s preferred course of action as a traditionally  ‘reluctant power’: a combination of economic and political integration mostly via the EU, and NATO as the preferred go-to for military power if the need arises. Hence, their aim can be interpreted as reducing dependency on China without confrontation through a ‘change through trade’ mantra of international engagement.

This is also reflected in the EU strategy, which has a strong emphasis on cooperation over confrontation. It pledges to ‘work with’ China on issues of common interest, referring to the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) and the ASEM process, of which Beijing is a part. The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy therefore points to a thorny problem for policy makers, namely how to reconcile a China policy driven by an economic imperative, with the geopolitical demands that come from actively upholding the rules-based order today. The EU  strategy reflects the recognition, following from a growing geopolitical awareness and quest for assertiveness, of the importance of a  “meaningful” naval presence in the Indo-Pacific but it remains unclear whether many member nations would actually follow through with sending ships for fear of antagonizing China.

Despite a growing understanding in Europe of the need for economic diversification, especially in terms of supply chains, China nevertheless retains strong economic pull over Europe, even as it has reportedly lost some of its soft power. And even a brexited Global Britain seems to struggle getting this balance right, with the Integrated Review said to “tread too fine a line between engaging with and deterring the Chinese Communist Party.”

Especially after Brexit, there have been calls that the EU, under German leadership as an “enabling power”, needs to abandon its course of “strategic dilution” for a more rigorous, ‘geopolitical turn’. And compelling arguments show why – beyond rhetorical affirmations and debates about European ‘strategic autonomy’ at the discursive level – there needs to b e a strengthening of the EU’s willingness and ability to act more decisively. This would represent a radical reorientation and involves stepping out of the comfort zone of norms and regulatory power into ‘hard politics’. It would mean taking a clear position vis-a-vis Russia and China, going beyond rhetorical condemnation and sanctions as the basis of an effective Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). An earlier manifestation of the inability to act from a united, strategically decisive position was the belated and ultimately weak EU statement on the International Arbitration Court ruling over China’s South China Sea claims in 2016.

Against this background, it’s a valid question to ask how strategically substantive symbolic acts of ‘naval diplomacy’ by European nations can be; especially when these are not established maritime powers or security actors, like France and Britain; the latter are anchored in the region through its overseas territories and actively enhance regional security through established defense cooperation and material contributions. France for instance, with a regular naval presence in the South China Sea supports freedom of navigation under UNCLOS while the German frigate won’t participate. An announcement on its intended route stated that ”it is not planned that the frigate will sail within 12 nautical miles of any island or feature claimed by China in the area.”

Yet there are reasons to claim that the decision to send the Bayern, as symbolic as it may be, nevertheless projects power.  The question is what kind of power, and what does it signal to actors in the region?

Sending a German frigate to the region forms part of a German commitment to a greater defence and security footprint outside of its traditional comfort zones. German Defence Minister Angela Kramp-Karrenbauer acknowledged in a recent interview that it was intended as a show of solidarity and interests: “Our local partners—Australia, Japan, and South Korea—expect us to send a signal, to show our colors, and bring our weight to bear. It’s about how we work together with regional democracies and states governed by the rule of law. And about our involvement in regional security dialogues.”

It should come as no surprise why Germany’s foreign and security policy has long been shaped by a national self-understanding as a ‘civilian power’, manifested in military reluctance. It’s often said that history has a long echo, meaning it weighs heavily on a nation’s or region’s developmental trajectory.

Capitalizing on the strengths it developed as it sought to shed its shameful past, the modern Germany republic re-built itself as far away from hard power and territorial disputes as possible: it accepted the post-war territorial order, even renouncing claims to substantial parts of its eastern provinces lost in WWII. Establishing itself as a trade nation, a ‘change through trade’ (Wandel durch Handel) became the driving mantra behind its foreign policy and international engagement. This grew out of a “change through rapprochement” strategy when it found itself in the cross hairs of superpower confrontation during the Cold War;  a divided country, Germany decided to deviate from the hard power logic underpinning the pax Americana, steering the course of its history away from further militarization: under Social Democratic (SPD) Chancellor Willy Brandt, Germany engaged the Soviet Union in a policy of detente, establishing channels of communication and using “treaties rather than weapons”.  Some argue this laid the foundation of reunification. And so, convergence thinking – the belief that China and Russia could be herded into the liberal fold through economic cooperation and the resulting integration into the multilateral trading system – prevailed after the ‘end of history’ that wasn’t. And it still echoes strongly in Germany’s decision-making.

But this is not enough anymore for our times. When history’s echo is shouty and persistent, it can unwillingly act as a straightjacket. Holding on to the old thinking ultimately results in turning away from the necessities imposed on liberal democracies by changing geostrategic circumstances. As German Defence Minister Angela Kramp Karrenbauer announced in November last year during a ‘virtual trip’ to the Indo-Pacific,

“We want to live up to our responsibility for a rules-based international order, and we want to take an active part in shaping that order. So, we are prepared to defend our interests with active deeds, not just words. And we have to do that more so than in the past.”

This constitutes – in the words of the Defence Minister herself, a “huge break with the past”,  and ministerial sources were quoted stating that the operation would protect “our multilateral, rule-based principles and values, such as our commitment to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea”; specifically, it was reported “the Federal Government understood the dispatch of the frigate as a sign to counter Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea”, thereby reaffirming the July 2016 ruling of the arbitral tribunal established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As a tangible expression and extension of the intent behind the European turn to the Indo Pacific, the German (and also the anticipated Dutch) warship is a sign that the interests of like-minded countries are converging in the Indo-Pacific  –  which supports Australia’s position in the region.  As one Australian analyst cogently observed  in the context of naval power projections, “warships  may  act  as  ‘floating  embassies’  in  a  way  that  other  military  assets  do  not.  This  flexibility  empowers  them  to  function  as  ambassadors  for  cooperation  and  reassurance,  as  well as delivering deterrent or coercive messages”

The strategic effect of a physical German defence presence in the region, as a previously reticent military actor, should therefore not be underestimated. Sending a ship is not a solution, but a start; deeds, not just words, are a form of declarative power- especially in the face of sustained Chinese efforts at the EU level to promote China as a benevolent rising power, committed to ‘good governance’ and multilateralism; is underpinned by the recognition that  “military presence is as much a prerequisite for political influence as multilateralism, free trade and normative power.” And it seemed to have an effect, as China reportedly responded with stern warnings, through a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, ‘to not challenge China’s sovereignty’  

But there needs to be more. European nations will need to position themselves more clearly amid Chinese power assertions, especially given China’s concerning military posturing towards Taiwan and the Philippines. In order to become a trustworthy actor, Europe must leave behind outdated notions of the pre-eminence of norms, regulatory power and free trade as the only truly liberal agents of change.

And despite limited real deterrence capability, a symbolic act can still send a loud message: it’s a tangible signal that Germany is committed to a free, open maritime order and will support its allies in upholding it. This way, it draws a line – not in the sand but in the water.

And as we know, in the Indo-Pacific every dash matters.