In six months over the Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa and India to Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Australia – what sounds like a dream cruise route is for the frigate “Bavaria” a mission in highly political waters. On Monday, the Bundeswehr warship with more than 200 soldiers set off for the Indo-Pacific. The Ministry of Defense wants to “show the flag” with the trip – especially against China. The federal government wants to avoid a confrontation with Beijing as much as possible.
“The mission is a big step for Germany”
The mission is intended to be a signal to the allies for more German engagement in the region, which is considered to be geopolitically and economically crucial for the 21st century. Beijing is aggressively expanding its supremacy in the South China Sea, claiming island after island for itself and thus threatening global stability. In return, Washington in particular is trying to put a military stop to Beijing there.
“For Germany the mission is a big step, a positive step. The country is increasing its presence in the region for the first time and underpinning its Indo-Pacific guidelines,” says defense expert Helena Legarda from the Berlin China Institute Merics. “It’s a move China definitely doesn’t like.”
With the guidelines published last year, the federal government claims that it is striving for increased security policy cooperation in the region and advocates the “defense of a rule-based international order” there. With the dispatch of the frigate, the government is now underpinning its guidelines militarily. But Berlin does not want to upset the leadership in Beijing.
China is the elephant in the room: In the guidelines and also in the communications of the ministry on the mission of the “Bavaria”, the People’s Republic is hardly or at all mentioned.
Symbol politics without a clear goal?
In any case, the mission is quite historic – no German warship has been in this area for several decades. But there is no clear goal behind all the German symbolic politics. The “Bayern” is supposed to sail through the controversial South China Sea towards the end of the year. However, the Ministry of Defense emphasizes that only the usual trade routes are used to pass through the busy sea area. There should be no military escalation with Beijing – Berlin makes this clear from the start.
“The federal government sends a mixed message with its mission,” says Legarda. “If the frigate adheres to the usual trade routes as announced and does not carry out any ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations with its partners, then Berlin will de facto submit to the rules established by China.”
Allies do not know what to think of the German mission
In principle, the mission is welcomed by the Americans and other allies in the region, says Legarda. “Nevertheless, it remains open to the partners what Berlin’s goal is when it comes to the question of curbing China’s drive for power.”
“The mission is unlikely to go far enough for the allies, as confrontation is evidently avoided,” the expert suspects. “You will insist that the dispatch of the frigate is not a one-off event.”
A port visit to China requested by Germany is also viewed with suspicion by the partners. However, Beijing is taking its time with a commitment. According to Legarda, a decision could be delayed for a long time because China will wait for the outcome of the elections in Germany. “Depending on which party coalition is at the top, either a continuation of the current China policy is expected or even a tightening.”