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Germany Nervously Tests the Indo-Pacific Waters

A quiet frigate deployment is a sign of muddled policy toward Beijing.

By , a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer.
The German frigate Bayern in Tokyo
Japan's Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi (centerleft) stands with Tilo Kalski (center right), captain of the German Navy frigate Bayern, on the deck during a visit to the ship docked at the International Cruise Terminal in Tokyo on Nov. 5, 2021. David Mareuil/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

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

And now, on the heels of those much-publicized deployments, a single German frigate is making the rounds of Asia. With the ship now halfway through its mission, Berlin has created more questions than it has answered with its first foray into the region in two decades.

The German Navy’s deployment of the Brandenburg-class frigate Bayern, announced in January 2021 and dispatched that August, throws into relief 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 none of these, for continued economic growth.

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

And now, on the heels of those much-publicized deployments, a single German frigate is making the rounds of Asia. With the ship now halfway through its mission, Berlin has created more questions than it has answered with its first foray into the region in two decades.

The German Navy’s deployment of the Brandenburg-class frigate Bayern, announced in January 2021 and dispatched that August, throws into relief 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 none of these, 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 pains to avoid being dragged along by Washington into a direct confrontation with Beijing. But the capitals of Europe are unable to agree on a unified approach. Despite Brussels’s designation of Beijing as a “systemic rival,” domestic pressures continue to blunt any effort to present a united European response, which carries over into the maritime missions conducted by the states of Europe. And, with few exceptions, decades of European underinvestment in maritime forces makes their presence far from home symbolic at best, with Germany among the most afflicted.

Germany’s naval deployment is distinct from those of France and the United Kingdom in part because Germany has no territorial holdings in the Indo-Pacific, and it has not since losing its footholds in China and the South Pacific after World War I. Given the German Navy’s long absence from the region and relatively small size, it is not necessarily surprising that Germany would want to test the waters with a limited deployment. But it wasn’t exactly clear what it was doing there.

Even in its planning stages, the Bayern deployment drew fire for the unclear objectives of its solo mission. At one point Thomas Silberhorn, parliamentary state secretary for the defense ministry, stated that Berlin wished to “deepen our ties with our partners in the democratic camp,” while in the same breath making clear that the deployment wasn’t “aimed at anyone.”

So seemingly keen was Berlin to avoid inciting ire in Beijing that it requested a port visit in Shanghai as a part of the ship’s itinerary. By August 2021, Beijing had rejected the request, and then-German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was on the record saying that, “For our partners in the Indo-Pacific, it is a reality that sea routes are no longer open and secure, and that claims to territory are being applied by the law of ‘might is right.’”

However, the Bayern’s deployment consciously avoided transiting any contested sea routes, and its chosen direction of travel ensured that it wouldn’t even have an opportunity to cross the path of allied vessels in the region at the same time. Still, at times Berlin and its representatives in the Indo-Pacific come close to dropping the fig leaf of the deployment not being “aimed at anyone.” The many references to freedom of navigation, China’s rising strength, and the ongoing subversion of the rule of law all seemed to point in one direction, but each time they stopped short of explicitly naming the malign actor at the center of most of the region’s instability.

Germany’s decision to go it alone was a surprising one, given the potential opportunity to integrate with the British Royal Navy’s carrier strike group deployment earlier in the year, as the Netherlands elected to do with its own frigate. This solo deployment may have offered richer opportunities for bilateral engagement, but it’s also underlining several decades of German sea blindness. To deploy a single, unsupported frigate for six months is a risky proposition, but it would likely have been a stretch for the German Navy to commit more given the size of its force and its existing European commitments.

It also may indicate a stark shortfall in German understanding of the changed security landscape of the region. In a public address delivered during the Bayern’s visit to Singapore last month, Germany’s chief of navy—Vice Adm. Kay-Achim Schönbach—indicated that the ship was selected specifically because it was a bit older and lacked the offensive punch of some newer vessels, to avoid the appearance of provocation.

Assuming that Schönbach made that comment in reference to Beijing, it is indicative of just how little Berlin understands the power discrepancy involved. The number of warships and auxiliaries China launched between 2014 and 2018 outnumbered the entire German Navy. 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 that’s at a grand project like the Australian-U.S. naval deal or at a seemingly symbolic gesture like Lithuania’s upgrading of Taiwanese diplomatic status.

There was something incongruous and half-hearted about the Bayern’s trip from the start. During the public events surrounding the Bayern’s visit to Singapore, Norbert Riedel, Germany’s ambassador to Singapore, pledged that Germany would deepen its presence and engagement with the region, with the intention of upholding a rules-based multilateral order as well as freedom of navigation in international waters. Both he and Germany’s chief of navy referred to the European approach and multilateralism with regard to the deployment, but only Schönbach acknowledged the apparent incongruity between invoking multilateralism and a unilateral military deployment. Bayern’s deployment was not only a somewhat sad commentary on the state of Europe’s navies but also a strange way to underline a commitment to working with allies.

The project was launched under former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and it is now being overseen by her successor, Olaf Scholz. In her years in office, Merkel drew closer and closer to China, only acknowledging the problematic nature of that relationship as her time in power drew to a close, and leaving this new plan for naval diplomacy for her successor to execute. While Bayern lay moored alongside the pier at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base, Scholz made his first call as chancellor to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Neither side appears to have mentioned the Bayern deployment, as Xi urged Scholz to continue and expand economic cooperation, and Scholz reportedly made his desire clear for deepening economic ties with China. This leaves Scholz to walk a fine line, balancing a coalition agreement that commits his government to pressing Beijing on human rights issues with the commercial opportunities presented by Berlin’s largest trade partner. Schönbach made clear in his Singapore remarks that Germany would be sending more, larger naval missions in the future, along with other military capabilities, but it’s unclear whether Scholz’s coalition government will want to rock the boat with the more provocative actions Schönbach mentioned, such as transiting the Taiwan Strait or contested 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 address the Indo-Pacific.

In Singapore, Schönbach noted that seeing China’s expansion and size up close was very different from the view in Germany, and that he wanted to take that perspective home to inform domestic views. But Berlin seems to be starting where many others did years ago: with the notion that economic engagement should, or even can, continue unabated while simultaneously pushing back on Beijing’s destabilizing activities, or that international opprobrium will resonate in the Chinese capital. It may not be long before Germany learns the same lesson others have, namely that Beijing will not hesitate to retaliate against any activity it deems counter to its interests, irrespective of Berlin’s purported intentions.

Germany might be aspiring to a third way for economic and diplomatic relations, not tied to U.S.-China competition; however, that niche seems to already be occupied by France, and rightfully so. With its history of engagement, territorial interests, and permanent military presence in the Indo-Pacific, Paris is far better prepared to lead a major effort there. So, unless Germany does plan to throw in its lot behind a truly European effort, future deployments will remain untethered and limited in their utility—and Beijing, regardless of how many caveats Berlin deploys, may treat them as provocations anyway.

Blake Herzinger is a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Twitter: @BDHerzinger

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