Beijing has called on Germany not to infringe on the sovereignty of South China Sea claimants, in response to Berlin’s plans to send a frigate to the region in August.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday that all countries enjoyed freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, but “this should not be used as an excuse to endanger the sovereignty and security of littoral countries”.
China is facing growing pressure from Washington and its European allies in the disputed waters, with frequent US air and naval deployments to the South China Sea as well as a French patrol through the region in February by the nuclear submarine Emeraude and a naval support ship.
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According to a Reuters report, which cited unnamed senior officials in Berlin, a German frigate will depart for Asia in August and cross the South China Sea on its return journey, becoming the first German warship to do so since 2002. But the ship will not pass within 12 nautical miles of any land in the region, the report said.
Experts said the deployment would be an important step towards Germany implementing its Indo-Pacific guidelines, approved last year, to increase its engagement in the region.
Sun Keqin, research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said the move was concerning as Germany – traditionally more cautious about using its military power – now wanted to boost its ties with the US and Nato.
“China does not wish for the presence of Western military power in the region,” Sun said. “But Germany wants to strengthen its presence in the Indo-Pacific region and enhance collaborations with Asean, Japan, South Korea and India. It also shows the United States hopes Germany will take more responsibility to pressure China.”
Guo Xuetang, an international relations professor at Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, said the deployment reflected the independence of Germany’s diplomatic and military strategy, rather than a joint effort with the US to pressure China.
Berlin’s decision to steer its frigate 12 nautical miles clear of features in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing was a sign that Germany did not want to upset China too much. “Germany deliberately played down the colour of confrontation with China, which is consistent with [Chancellor Angela] Merkel‘s policy of not advocating confrontation,” he said.
According to Helena Legarda, a senior analyst with the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, the intended crossing of the South China Sea was mostly a “symbolic move” but would send a strong message to Beijing that Germany was taking more of a stance and was ready to more actively confront China’s territorial claims in the area.
“This mission shows Berlin’s approach is starting to change, reflecting a new understanding of the importance of the Indo-Pacific for global stability and the rules-based international order, and a new sense of urgency to react to China’s growing assertiveness in the region,” she said.
“While the German federal government has been careful to indicate that neither the new Indo-Pacific guidelines, nor this mission in particular, are meant to target China – thus trying to distance itself from Washington‘s approach – it is clear that Beijing is the elephant in the room.”
Germany became the second country in the EU – after France – to lay out its official vision on the region when it launched its Indo-Pacific guidelines in September with the goal of enhancing its role as a “creative actor and partner” in the region. Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said last year the German naval presence would help to “safeguard the rules-based international order”.
“Given the rising security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, it is my goal to intensify our bilateral and multilateral collaboration,” she said.
According to Legarda, this is likely to involve further cooperation with regional powers and other like-minded states, such as Australia, Japan, France and the US. Such moves would be bound to anger Beijing, which would see them as attempts to create a Western coalition to contain China’s rise, she said.
While Germany is becoming stricter with Beijing on some issues, its priorities have previously been its trade and business interests with China, which have grown steadily under Merkel’s chancellorship. For the fifth consecutive year China has surpassed the Netherlands and the US as Germany’s biggest trading partner.
According to preliminary results, goods worth 212.1 billion euros (US$258 billion) were traded between Germany and China in 2020. Recently, China also became the single most important market for Germany‘s car industry.
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