Deployment of German frigate Bayern in Indo-Pacific shows muddled Chinese policy

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European navies are once again making waves east of Suez with a series of high-level naval diplomacy missions. France deployed its only carrier strike group to the Indo-Pacific region in 2019, followed by the UK carrier strike group and an accompanying Dutch frigate in 2021.

And now, in the wake of these high-profile deployments, a single German frigate is circling Asia. With the ship now halfway through its mission, Berlin has created more questions than it answered with its first foray into the region in two decades.

The deployment by the German Navy of Brandenburg-class frigate Bayern, announced in January 2021 and sent in August, highlights Europe’s dilemma in the Indo-Pacific. Despite its public commitments to concepts such as human rights, democracy and equality, Germany (like many others in Europe) is deeply dependent on China, a power that believes in no of them, for continued economic growth.

European navies are once again making waves east of Suez with a series of high-level naval diplomacy missions. France deployed its only carrier strike group to the Indo-Pacific region in 2019, followed by the UK carrier strike group and an accompanying Dutch frigate in 2021.

And now, in the wake of these high-profile deployments, a single German frigate is circling Asia. With the ship now halfway through its mission, Berlin has created more questions than it answered with its first foray into the region in two decades.

The deployment by the German Navy of Brandenburg-class frigate Bayern, announced in January 2021 and sent in August, highlights Europe’s dilemma in the Indo-Pacific. Despite its public commitments to concepts such as human rights, democracy and equality, Germany (like many others in Europe) is deeply dependent on China, a power that believes in no of them, for continued economic growth.

While the European Union and China traded sanctions in a rare escalation of tensions last year, EU members are taking great care to avoid being drawn by Washington into a direct confrontation with Beijing. But European capitals fail to agree on a unified approach. Despite Brussels’ designation of Beijing as a “systemic rival”, internal pressures continue to blunt any effort to present a united European response, which extends into maritime missions led by European states. And, with few exceptions, decades of European underinvestment in maritime forces make their presence away from home symbolic at best, with Germany among the hardest hit.

Germany’s naval deployment is separate from those of France and the United Kingdom in part because Germany has no territorial possessions in the Indo-Pacific, and it has not since lost its positions. in China and the South Pacific after WWI. Considering the German Navy’s long absence from the region and relatively small size, it is not necessarily surprising that Germany wants to test the terrain with a limited deployment. But what he was doing there was not exactly clear.

Even at the planning stage, the Bayern deployment drew fire for the unclear objectives of his solo mission. At one point, Thomas Silberhorn, Parliamentary State Secretary at the Defense Ministry, said Berlin wanted to “deepen our ties with our partners on the Democratic side”, while at the same time specifying that the deployment was “not aimed at anyone. “. “

Berlin was apparently so keen to avoid anger in Beijing that it requested a tour of the port of Shanghai as part of the ship’s itinerary. In August 2021, Beijing rejected the request, and then German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer publicly stated that “for our partners in the Indo-Pacific, it is a reality that highways shipping lines are no longer open and secure. , and that land claims are enforced by the law of “power is good.” “

However, the BayernThe deployment of the consciously avoided transit through contested sea routes, and its chosen direction of travel ensured that it would not even have the opportunity to cross paths with Allied ships in the region at the same time. Yet sometimes Berlin and its representatives in the Indo-Pacific are on the verge of dropping the fig leaf of the “nobody” deployment. The many references to freedom of navigation, the rise of China and the continued subversion of the rule of law all seemed to point in one direction, but each time they stopped before explicitly naming the actor. malicious at the center of most of the region’s instability. .

Germany’s decision to go it alone was surprising, given the potential opportunity to fit into the British Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group deployment earlier in the year, as the Netherlands chose to do. with their own frigate. This solo deployment may have offered richer opportunities for bilateral engagement, but it also underscores several decades of German sea blindness. Deploying a single frigate without support for six months is a risky proposition, but it would probably have been too much for the German navy to engage further given the size of its force and its existing European commitments.

It may also indicate a serious gap in German understanding of the region’s changed security landscape. In a public speech delivered during the BayernDuring his visit to Singapore last month, the Chief of the German Navy, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, said the ship was selected specifically because it was a bit older and did not lacked the offensive punch of some newer ships, in order to avoid the appearance of provocation. .

Assuming Schönbach made this comment in reference to Beijing, it indicates how little Berlin understands the power gap involved. The number of warships and auxiliaries launched by China between 2014 and 2018 outnumbered the German navy as a whole. Today’s Chinese navy, about five times the size of the German navy, is unlikely to differentiate between frigates when it comes to provocation. When Beijing decides to take offense, it does so, whether it’s during a major project like the Australia-U.S. Naval Agreement or during a seemingly symbolic gesture like Lithuania’s improvement in Taiwan’s diplomatic status.

There was something incongruous and lukewarm about the Bayernjourney from the start. During public events surrounding the BayernDuring his visit to Singapore, Norbert Riedel, German Ambassador to Singapore, pledged that Germany would strengthen its presence and engagement in the region, with the aim of maintaining a rules-based multilateral order as well as the freedom of navigation in international waters. He and the German naval chief both spoke about the European approach and multilateralism to deployment, but only Schönbach acknowledged the apparent incongruity between the invocation of multilateralism and a unilateral military deployment. BayernThe deployment of was not only a somewhat sad commentary on the state of European navies, but also an odd way of underscoring a commitment to work with the allies.

The project was started under the leadership of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and is now overseen by her successor, Olaf Scholz. During her years in power, Merkel grew closer and closer to China, only acknowledging the problematic nature of that relationship at the end of her term, and leaving this new naval diplomacy plan to her successor for the ‘run. While Bayern Moored alongside the pier at Changi Naval Base in Singapore, Scholz made his first appeal as chancellor to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Neither side seems to have mentioned the Bayern deployment, while Xi urged Scholz to continue and expand economic cooperation, and Scholz has reportedly clearly expressed his desire to deepen economic ties with China. This leaves Scholz walking a fine line, balancing a coalition deal that commits his government to pressure Beijing on human rights issues with the business opportunities presented by Berlin’s biggest trading partner. Schönbach has made it clear in his remarks to Singapore that Germany will send more larger naval missions in the future, as well as other military capabilities, but it is not clear whether Scholz’s coalition government will want to shake up the boat with the most provocative actions mentioned by Schönbach, such as transiting through the Taiwan Strait or disputed areas of the South China Sea. And if a Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to be a dangerous possibility, Germany may simply not have the bandwidth to tackle the Indo-Pacific.

In Singapore, Schönbach noted that seeing China’s expansion and size up close was very different from seeing it in Germany, and that he wanted to bring that perspective home to inform national opinions. But Berlin seems to start where many others did years ago: with the idea that economic engagement should, or even can, continue unabated while pushing back against destabilizing Beijing activities, or that International opprobrium will resound in the Chinese capital. It may not be long before Germany learns the same lesson as others that Beijing will not hesitate to retaliate against any activity it deems to be against its interests, regardless of the alleged intentions. from Berlin.

Germany could aspire to a third way for economic and diplomatic relations, unrelated to US-Chinese competition; however, this niche seems already occupied by France, and rightly so. With its history of engagement, its territorial interests and its permanent military presence in the Indo-Pacific, Paris is much better prepared to lead a major effort there. Thus, unless Germany considers joining a truly European effort, future deployments will remain free and limited in their usefulness – and Beijing, however many warnings Berlin has issued, can way to treat them as provocations.


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