Source: Defence

Digital Snapshot

by Justin Burke

Zeitenwende and the Indo-Pacific

Digital Snapshot #10/22

13 May 2022

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.


In Australia and across the English-speaking world there is an enduring fascination with German words which capture a unique or complex phenomenon. From zeitgeist to schadenfreude, many have entered everyday discourse.

Currently Zeitenwende or ‘turning point’ is growing in prominence, after Chancellor Olaf Scholz used the term in a historic speech to the Bundestag in late February to describe the change to German foreign and security policy prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A number of issues are involved. The misjudgement of Russia’s intentions has caused significant shock in the German political establishment; the long-held belief in the effectiveness of trade, dialogue and cooperation over “militarism” has seemingly proven hollow; the neglect of the Bundeswehr’s materiel readiness has become apparent and alarmed many; and, finally, the reality of dependence on Russian oil and gas has become clear, though it is potentially the hardest of this list to resolve.

It must also be said that the Chancellor’s historic words have not been followed with decisive action by any reasonable measure, especially on the question of supplying heavy armaments and weapons to Ukraine. Herr Scholz’s SPD brings an awkward legacy to this new context including an outdated attachment to Willi Brand’s 1970s “Ostpolitik“, and former chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s unsavoury Russian business entanglements since leaving office in 2005. Scholz will have to successfully contend with both – and more besides – if his policy is to advance.

Germany is not alone; in fact, many other nations have experienced such an awakening from the post-Cold War era of peace and prosperity, and there are some insights to be shared.

Australia’s own Zeitenwende occurred around 2016 when relations with China – our main trading partner – soured due to the realisation that a campaign of political influence and attempted “elite capture” was underway. In that year, Senator Sam Dastyari was accused of accepting political donations of Chinese origin in return for publicly supporting China’s position on the South China Sea. New foreign interference laws were later passed. By 2018 Australia had excluded Huawei and ZTE from constructing the new 5G telecommunications network. In 2020, these events plus Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origins of COVID, were cited by Chinese officials in an infamous “list of 14 grievances” handed to the media in Canberra, and trade restrictions on imports of Australian beef, barley, wine and to some extent coal followed. The frozen relations continue to the present day.

Australia has made many significant announcements about defence acquisitions and investments in R&D – notably via the AUKUS pact to develop a nuclear-powered submarine program with the United States and United Kingdom, plus cooperating on other advanced defence technologies – but most are yet to come to fruition, underscoring that a “turning point” is merely the first step in a sustained change of direction.

While Australia has mostly abandoned the hope that trade might liberalise China (similar to the Wandel durch Handel notion in Germany), and also jettisoned the pleasant fiction that we would not be forced to choose between our security partner (the US) and our main trading partner, there are still blind spots and vulnerabilities which remain unaddressed, many of which have strong similarities to Germany’s situation.

In terms of energy security, Australia continues to rely on the importation of refined petroleum products due to the steady neglect of local oil exploration, production and refining capacity over many years. With the majority coming from so-called “mega refineries” in Singapore and South Korea, via sea lanes and through choke points which may one day be threatened – such as the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca – Australia’s basic capacity to function, feed and defend itself may be undermined by simple logistics. The Morrison government has taken commendable but ultimately insufficient steps to ameliorate these risks.

Australia also remains economically dependent on exporting minerals to China, chiefly coal and iron ore. The latter has particular security implications and historical resonance in Australia. In 1938, unionised dock workers refused to load “pig iron” on ships destined for Japan due to the likelihood it would be used in their military invasion of China. There has been little discussion in Australia about the implications for this lucrative export market during a security crisis in the region involving China, especially in the instance Australia was itself facing Chinese ships or weapons forged from our minerals.

At least on social media, it is easy to detect the vigour with which Germans are debating their Zeitenwende. There is impatience from those who have been arguing for many years that German security and defence policies should be normalised, strengthened and better funded. And there are rear-guard arguments from those custodians of the previous and longstanding status-quo against “militarism”.

Again, the Australian experience is cause for optimism, showing that a new political, security and public consensus can coalesce, while still allowing space for discussion of alternate points of view. Notably, former prime ministers from the Labor party such as Kevin Rudd (2007-10 and 2013), a Mandarin-speaker and noted China expert, and Paul Keating (1991-96), have offered commentary and criticism of Australia’s foreign policy settings and performance, and done so from prominent platforms such as the National Press Club.

But it is not only Germans who are engrossed by their Zeitenwende and the direction it may ultimately take; Germany’s friends in the Indo-Pacific are keenly interested to see whether the interest demonstrated by last year’s presence mission of FGS Bayern – and the Indo Pacific Guidelines of 2020 – will be sustained; or reduced due to a focus on Russia, the Baltic and the Eastern front of NATO; or alternatively enhanced due to the realisation that autocracies must now be confronted everywhere. The lack of clarity is compounded the discontinuities a new Chancellor, a new coalition government in the Bundestag, and a new head of the German Navy, Vice Admiral Kaack. Germany is still expected to participate in ADF Exercise Pitch Black ‘22 with an Air Force contingent, and in the naval Exercise Kakadu ‘22 with personnel only. After attending Exercise Talisman Sabre ’21 in the capacity of observers, Germany would logically be invited to the next instalment in 2023 as either observers or participants. Moreover, Germany is still considering the possibility of a further Indo-Pacific naval deployment of a frigate and/or a fast combat support ship in 2023 or 2024, depending on available resources.

Regrettably, however, a delegation from the Deutsche Marine was greatly missed at the Indo-Pacific ’22 maritime conference in Sydney this week, which saw delegations from French, Indian, American, Japanese, Indonesian, Canadian and the UK navies, amongst many others (though pointedly not China or Russia), discuss Indo-Pacific maritime security and cooperation under the banner of “a commonality of purpose”.  

At the three-day event, the Royal Australian Navy’s Vice Admiral Noonan underscored the importance of the region to international security and prosperity. “[The region] comprises at least 38 countries, and shares 44 percent of the world’s surface and about 65 percent of the world’s population. It counts for 62 percent of global GDP and 46 percent of the world’s merchandise trade,” he said.  “In this idiosyncratic maritime region, seven out of the top 10 largest navies in the world are Indo-Pacific. The busiest international sea lanes are in our region as are nine of the world’s 10 busiest seaports. When it comes to maritime commons, a commonality of purpose is what will enable prosperity and security for all.”

It is hoped by many that Germany’s “turning point” does not result in “turning away” from this quickly evolving and consequential Indo-Pacific region.