Flashpoints | Security

Is Germany Considering Maritime Missions in Asia?

Berlin may be considering a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. Here’s why that matters.

By Markus Kaim for
Is Germany Considering Maritime Missions in Asia?

German Navy sailors gather for smoking at the German combat supply ship ‘Frankfurt am Main’ operating in EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya Monday, March 21, 2016.

Credit: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

“Our partners in the Indo-Pacific region…feel increasingly pressured by China’s claim to power. They want a clear sign of solidarity. For valid international law, for intact territory, for free shipping. It is time for Germany to send out such a signal by showing its presence in the region with its allies.”

— German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer

Without explicitly mentioning the term, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer recently foreshadowed a novel development: a German Freedom of Navigation Operation — or FONOP — in the South China Sea. While her November 2019 keynote address on security policy focused on the future relationship between the EU and NATO and the development of the German defense budget, the passage of the speech which sketched the contours of a foreign deployment of German armed forces (Bundeswehr) was an important development that has remained neglected by most reporting. For a country with a deeply embedded culture of military restraint since the aftermath of World War II, such a mission would be a remarkable step.  

There is some precedent. Berlin is participating with larger contingents in international military operations in Afghanistan, Mali, and Iraq, and elsewhere. It is also participating in the European Union Naval Force-Somalia (EU NAVFOR Somalia), the European Union’s mission to protect humanitarian aid supplies to Somalia, ensure free navigation, and combat piracy off the coast of Somalia. And a German officer has already participated in a FONOP conducted by the French Navy in Asia. 

But the Bundeswehr’s current and past foreign deployments have primarily served crisis management purposes and have been justified neither by Germany’s national interests nor by the behavior of a major power in world politics. Against this background, it is understandable that Germany’s defense ministry has been preparing for its participation in such an operation silently for months. A final decision is to be made in January 2020, according to Berlin government sources. The plans for the operation are not yet known in detail, but rumors have circulated in Berlin government circles that a German ship should cross the Strait of Taiwan, which China regards as its territorial waters.

A Controversial Mission

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It’s not surprising that such a mission is controversial for Germany. In particular, parts of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), of which Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is a member, have expressed skepticism. In a newspaper interview in November 2019, the chairman of the SPD parliamentary group, Rolf Mützenich, criticized  Kramp-Karrenbauer, describing the idea of German engagement in the Indo-Pacific as one that “contradicts all the security policy ideas of the SPD.”

Perhaps more powerful though, is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s skepticism fueled by fears of negative consequences for German-Chinese relations. Germany’s relationship with China, especially as a trading partner, enjoys a special place in Merkel’s foreign policy — to which other concerns are subordinated. After all, Germany’s economic ties with China are close. Large German corporations such as Volkswagen export to and produce in the country, and their balance sheet results depend on the development of the sales market in China. Germany, on the other hand, is one of the most important trading countries for the People’s Republic. In 2018, goods worth 199.3 billion euros were traded between the two countries.

The German public is also divided by this new type of foreign deployment. In September 2019, in a representative survey conducted by the Körber Foundation, 49 percent of Germans questioned agreed to Germany participating in maritime missions to protect freedom of navigation and international trade routes; 43 percent opposed. On the other hand, a German military presence in the Indo-Pacific is in the interest of the German naval leadership, which has wished for such an operation for some time. It’s also a signal to its own soldiers that German maritime influence is not constrained to the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean. The situation has also changed with regard to military capabilities: a German frigate of the latest F125 Baden-Württemberg class could be sent on such a mission for six months from mid-2020.

The Chinese response to a German FONOP mission is a wildcard that will be impossible to ignore. It is likely that the bilateral relationship will at least temporarily deteriorate, but this is arguably already happening. Many German foreign policymakers now share the sober analysis of European-Chinese relations presented by the EU Commission in March 2019. Occasional contacts between the German government and opposition members in Hong Kong (for which the German ambassador was summoned to the Chinese Foreign Ministry) are the root of the most recent tensions between Berlin and Beijing. But, above all, it is the German debate about Huawei’s business within its borders and China’s growing influence in Germany, more broadly, that is pushing the two countries apart. Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag‘s Foreign Affairs Committee recently called for the company to be excluded from the German 5G network for fear of espionage and sabotage.

Multilateralism as a Driver

The German government has historically rejected Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea or the strait between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Yet Berlin has also so far brushed off calls from European neighbors like Great Britain and France as well as regional powers Japan, South Korea, and Australia to get involved in freedom of navigation operations. Meanwhile, German politicians have pointed out that Germany has no security interests in this region and does not participate in power or regulatory disputes with the People’s Republic of China.

A German FONOP offers a threefold opportunity. First, such a mission would powerfully underline Germany’s commitment to the international rule-based order, to which Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Maas repeatedly refer. Second, it would allow Berlin, in times of transatlantic disgruntlement, to reject the American accusations of a lack of commitment to security policy and free-riding. Third and finally, it would send a signal to the European allies that Germany does not want to leave France alone to assume Europe’s leading role in foreign policy in view of global geopolitical shifts.

One important question still needs to be answered in this context, namely that of a possible multilateral framework for action. In order to send a powerful signal of European unity, the German government should seek close cooperation with London and Paris in this regard. Berlin has decided not to participate in the incipient European maritime mission in the Strait of Hormuz, which is led by France. The reason is the concern that German ships could be drawn into an armed conflict in the region. This is not a good omen for the necessary European unity in the waterways of Asia.

Markus Kaim is a Helmut Schmidt Fellow of the Zeit Foundation and the German Marshall Fund in Washington. He is also a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin.