A steady increase in German interest in the Indo-Pacific region has been witnessed with the recent high level interactions between Berlin and the regional powers during the first week of November 2022.On 1 November 2022, the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier met Japanese PM Kishida Fumio in Tokyo which was followed by “2+2” meeting of foreign and defence ministers of Tokyo and Berlin on 3 November, held on the sidelines of the two-day Foreign Ministers gathering of G7 in Munster, Germany. Earlier in April 2022, newly appointed Chancellor Scholz visited Japan, marking his first official visit to the region.
The paper examines the growing German engagement in the Indo-Pacific region with reference to the recent visits and policy developments. It also throws light on how Germany is trying to balance its interests with regional powers like Japan and China.
Locating the German interests in the Indo-Pacific
Though geographically afar, German interests in the region can be traced to the early 1990s. In 1993, Germany put forward its first strategic vision for Asia, reflecting its economic interests in the markets of the Asia-Pacific region. Expansion of trade between Germany and Southeast Asia was witnessed during this period with Southeast Asia increasing its share of German exports from 3.3% in 1990 to 5.5% in 1997.[i] With the growing acceptance of the Indo-Pacific concept, there has been a shift in Germany’s policy orientation from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific. The growing economic significance of the region as well as the rise of China has led Germany to realign its policy towards the region. Through its Policy Guidelines on the Indo-Pacific released in 2020, Germany has sought to place the focus of its foreign policy on diversifying its relations with the like-minded powers of the region. The motive behind this is to secure a significant presence in the discourse of the Indo-Pacific. Compared to the earlier security strategies which were centred around the economic sphere, Germany has now taken a broader and a more pragmatic outlook. This shift has been evident through Berlin’s political, defence and economic engagements in the region coinciding with the release of the Policy Guidelines.
At the 5th ASEAN-Germany Development Committee (AG-DPC) Meeting held via videoconference in November 2021, ASEAN and Germany exchanged views on their respective Indo-Pacific documents and emphasized the significance of ASEAN centrality and a rules-based international order.[ii] Through its seven month defence deployment of Frigate Bayern in the Indo-Pacific beginning August 2021 and participation in the regional defence exercises, Berlin has reflected its security interests and ‘increased presence’ in the region. Berlin also sees scope in securing cooperation in the non-traditional security areas like cyber and information security. For instance, Japan and Germany signed a bilateral agreement on the security of information in March 2021. [iii] As an export-oriented economy, Germany continues to have considerable economic interests in the region as major choke points are located here and a majority of global maritime trade flows through these waters. Any disruption on these maritime trade routes may have adverse consequences for the prosperity of Europe and Germany, as both Indian and Pacific Oceans together hold “over 70% of the global trade in goods and services, as well as over 60% of foreign direct investment flows”[iv]. Moreover, 20 of the world’s 33 megacities are located in this region[v]. In this dynamically developing region, there is an increasing competition for resources, strategic bases and trade outputs. Therefore, every country desires to be a part of this region. As a result this region has gained strategic significance for Berlin over the years.
According to German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht, maintaining peace in the region is important as “any conflict there would affect Germany massively, in multiple ways.” [vi] On 2 September, 2020 the German Federal Foreign Office tweeted Germany’s then Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas’ statement that “More than anywhere else, the Indo-Pacific region is where the shape of the international order of tomorrow will be decided. The Indo-Pacific region is a priority of German foreign policy.” [vii] Berlin seeks a sustained and long-term security commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. In this regard Germany deployed Frigate Bayern to create a stronger military presence in the maritime domain and to deepen its relationship with regional powers. In a September 2022 interview with The Japan Times, German Defence Minister stated that “In 2024, we plan to deploy maritime units again. As you can see, we want to make a continuous and long-term commitment” [viii] to the region. Thus, there is a growing importance of maritime diplomacy for Berlin in securing strategic interests in the waters of Indo-Pacific. Germany is active in this region despite the Ukraine crisis which currently occupies Europe.
Evolving German discourse on the Indo-Pacific
In September 2020, under the Chancellorship of Angela Merkel, Berlin released the “Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific.”[ix] The document highlights that “the region’s development and stability affects German prosperity and security – directly and indirectly. This resulted in a re-thinking of German and European engagement towards the Indo-Pacific region”. [x] The then German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in the official document stated that these guidelines are “a forward-looking, strategic guide for shaping Germany’s foreign policy on the Indo-Pacific. And can and should contribute to a future EU strategy on the Indo-Pacific” affirming Germany’s support to the expansion of European Union’s engagement in the region.[xi] Though not a resident power like France, Germany has economic and strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region as reflected in its Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific which highlights that the “region is becoming the key to shaping the international order in the 21st century.” [xii]
The document highlights Germany’s eight interests concerning the Indo-Pacific. These are peace and security, diversifying and deepening relations, neither unipolar nor bipolar, open shipping routes, open markets and free trade, digital transformation and connectivity, protecting our planet, and access to fact-based information, followed by seven principles which guides the policy i.e., European action, multilateralism, the rules-based order, United Nations Development Goals, human rights, inclusivity and partnership among equals.
One of the major components of Germany’s security outlook towards the region is to enhance its regional presence through port visits and defence drills in Southeast Asia. With the seven month naval deployment of a German Frigate FGS Bayern since August 2021 to the Indo-Pacific region, Germany seeks to convey the message that it “will stand by its international partners when it comes to securing the freedom of the sea routes and upholding international law in the region”[xiii]. Berlin viewed this mission as “one of diplomacy and security policy[xiv]” as it was the first German warship deployment in this region in almost two decades. As per the joint statement released by the Foreign Ministries of India and Germany on May 02, 2022 under the 6th India-Germany Inter Governmental Consultations, both sides welcomed this port call “as an important milestone in Germany’s growing engagement with the Indo-Pacific region”[xv]. The Frigate’s visit include participating in the maritime exercises with the regional partners and underlined Berlin’s interests in upholding a rules-based international order.
Source: The route of the “Bayern” https://www.bundeswehr.de/en/organization/navy/news/indo-pacific-deployment-2021
The recently held biennial air exercise Pitch Black 2022 (19 August - 8 September 2022) was hosted by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) with the aim of demonstrating global deploy ability, strengthening partnerships and promoting regional stability. This year’s exercise was significant because Germany, Japan, and the Republic of Korea participated “fully for the first time”[xvi]. The transfer of fighter jets and supply planes from Germany to the stopover in Singapore in mid-August, which went by the name Operation Rapid Pacific 2022 of the German Air force, was accomplished within 24 hours which showcased Berlin’s strategic deployment capabilities as part of Pitch Black 2022. On similar lines, another biennial Naval Exercise Kakadu 2022 was also held in Australia from 12–24 September 2022. This year’s event was the largest with participants from 20 nations including European countries like France (New Caledonia) and Germany. The significance of this exercise lies in its 2022 theme ‘Partnership, Leadership, Friendship’ aimed at engaging with like-minded regional powers. Together these frequent deployments and defence exercises reflect Germany’s commitment to “expand its Indo-Pacific military footprint”[xvii] by proving that it has the capacity to deploy quickly in the region.
Progress Report on “Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific” (2022)
On 14 September 2022, Germany released its Progress Report on the “Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region Germany—Europe—Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together” published in 2020, with the intent to evaluate its engagement with the regional players. This report mentions that the future engagement in the Indo-Pacific will revolve around strengthening the rules-based international order, tackling climate change, reducing dependencies through diversification, preventing future socio-economic crises and reaffirming an inclusive approach. [xviii] In this regard Berlin has taken keen interest in promoting multilateral partnership and improving its bilateral relationship with the regional powers like Australia, Japan, India and others.
Since the release of Policy Guidelines, Germany has intensified its regional cooperation in the policy areas like strengthening multilateralism, tackling climate change and protecting the environment; strengthening peace, security and stability; promoting human rights and the rule of law; strengthening rules-based, fair and sustainable free trade; rules-based networking and digital transformation of regions and markets; and bringing people together through culture, education and science. However, regarding implementation on the ground, the Progress Report shows that intended progress was visibly achieved in strengthening multilateralism as Germany has expanded its partnership with ASEAN as the key regional organisation in the Indo-Pacific; and in strengthening of regional engagements through regular diplomatic visits, intensification of bilateral relations with regional players, reaching agreements on connectivity partnerships and cooperation in the field of Energy and Climate policy.[xix] The Progress Report also expresses Germany’s keen interest in strengthening defense security in the Indo-Pacific “with its accession to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP)” and through its active participation in the two multinational military exercises held in Australia[xx].
Unlike the 2020 Policy Guidelines, the 2022 Progress Report mentions the tense situation at the ‘Taiwan Strait’. The report expresses concerns over the increasing risk of escalation in the Taiwan Strait territorial conflict. And that the “status quo in the Taiwan Strait can only be changed by peaceful means.”[xxi] Without naming nations, the report points out that the rules based international order is “being challenged to an increasing degree by individual actors in the Indo-Pacific”[xxii] and therefore it is in the interest of the regional players to strengthen regional cooperation.
Germany balancing its interests in the Indo-Pacific
Given the current geopolitical realities, Germany is trying to secure its economic interests and as well as long term security interests in the region. This has been reflected through Germany’s recent high level communication with Japan and China.
Japan has been the preferred partner for Germany in the Indo-Pacific region as is evident through the commonalities in their vision of cooperation in the region over the years. Both “share fundamental values, face similar challenges and have the same interests in many areas.” As Former Foreign Minister Maas stated “We want to prevent both hegemony and the formation of blocs; instead, we advocate a rules-based, transparent and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific region. Cooperation with Japan plays an important role in this regard”[xxiii]. Since the release of Germany’s Policy Guidelines (2020), high level visits and defence cooperation through joint military exercises have increased between Berlin and Tokyo. The major thrust behind these frequent interactions has been the growing divergence between Germany and China over Beijing’s assertive behaviour in the region. On 1 November 2022, Japanese PM Kishida met German President Steinmeier. Both sides acknowledged the significance of Asia for Europe’s security. Both leaders also expressed their common concerns on the use of force to unilaterally change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.
On 3 November 2022, the second edition of 2+2 meeting of Foreign Minister of Japan Hayashi Yoshimasa and his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock was organised in person in Munster, Germany, whereas Japanese Defence Minister Hamada Yasukazu and German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht met virtually. The first such meeting was held in April 2021 in a virtual format. The 2+2 consultations between Tokyo and Berlin are another step towards further strengthening their bilateral cooperation. The current Policy consultations between Japan and Germany are the product of Germany’s 2020 Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific. Both sides are willing to strengthen their security and defence cooperation to maintain a stable international order based on rule of law. Both share the view that Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Partnership (FOIP) and Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific of Germany are in line with each other” [xxiv] and have affirmed huge scope for future engagement as well. The 2+2 consultations also started the “negotiations for a military pact for the exchange of supplies and logistical support. i.e., an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA)” [xxv]between Germany and Japan for expanding cooperation in the defence sector given the current security challenges in the region.
Germany has continued its engagements with China as the latter “is Germany’s largest trade partner in goods – not only in the Indo-Pacific region, but also globally”[xxvi] . Without mentioning Beijing, Berlin in its Progress Report acknowledges “legal position on the situation in the South China Sea with a view to upholding the law of the sea”. By sending its Frigate it has shown its willingness to engage with the region and help address concerns over China’s assertive policies. During Bayern’s mission, Berlin reportedly planned to make a port visit at Shanghai in order to deter Chinese criticism over its military deployment in the region. However, China refused this visit on the grounds that German military presence in the region was intended to counter their influence.[xxvii] However on 29 September 2022, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, Chief of the German Air Force, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo said that the defence deployment doesn’t target China as “it is not a signal against anybody, it is a signal in favour of our partners here, our partners who share the same values as us. We did not provoke anybody.”[xxviii]
Whilst both the documents — the Indo-Pacific Guidelines and the Progress Report project China as a challenger to the international rules-based order, nonetheless, Germany continues to lack a consistent strategy to address this challenge. The future prospects of EU and Germany in the Indo-Pacific would depend on how categorically they address China in their respective Strategies.
On 4 November 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited China with a business delegation highlighting the close economic interests between the two as Beijing is Berlin’s crucial trading partner with “a volume of trade of over 245 billion euro” [xxix] in 2021. In Oct 2022, Chancellor Scholz had agreed to the investment of China’s shipping giant COSCO in the Hamburg Port Terminal. The port is Germany’s largest and increased investment is seen as a security risk. Allowing stake less than 25% after a compromise shows how Berlin is trying to strike a balance between maintaining economic ties with China and maintaining its own critical infrastructure security. Chancellor Scholz’s visit to China was the first visit by a G7/Western leader after the Party Congress which granted President Xi an unprecedented third term.
The Road Ahead
The German–Indo-Pacific ties which were earlier interpreted exclusively in economic terms for trade development have taken a realist turn given the strategic vulnerability and emerging great power competition. Berlin has geared up its Indo-Pacific approach by reflecting its presence in the region through recent high–level visits of German officials in regional countries like Japan and defence engagements in Australia. Germany is trying to balance its engagements with Japan and China, which are its important partners in the region. While Berlin needs Beijing for the market access which is crucial for its economic growth, Tokyo stands as an ideal security partner to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region. The 2020 Policy Guidelines on the Indo-Pacific and the recent Progress Report thus reflect Germany’s approach in strengthening its presence in the region by diversifying its economic partnerships in the region in order to avoid unilateral dependencies, promoting the rule of law, and strengthening multilateralism and security cooperation. However, for a long term engagement in the region, Germany needs to establish bilateral and multilateral cooperation with like-minded partners as a stable Indo-Pacific is crucial for Germany’s and global prosperity. This could be achieved through formulation of a proper strategy that reflects Berlin’s clear stance on the present geopolitical realities and a move away from the current lack of clarity in the German approach of viewing China as a partner or a competitor. What lies ahead for Germany’s relationship with other regional partners to facilitate a multilateral and inclusive cooperation needs to be explored further.
*Tarveen Kaur, Research Intern, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Jörg Hinze, Regional Development of German Foreign Trade in the 1990s, https://www.intereconomics.eu/pdf-download/year/1998/number/2/article/regional-development-of-german-foreign-trade-in-the-1990s.html (Accessed on 18 November 2022)
[ii] ASEAN, Germany reaffirm commitment to strengthen partnership, (8 November 2021), https://asean.org/asean-germany-reaffirm-commitment-to-strengthen-partnership/
[iii] https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/laenderinformationen/japan-node/japan-agreement-security-information/2449392#:~:text=On%2022%20March%202021%2C%20Japan,in%20the%20two%20partner%20countries (Accessed on 4 November 2022)
[iv] Questions and Answers: EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, (16 September 2021), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/QANDA_21_4709 (Accessed on 12 October 2022)
[v] The Indo-Pacific region, https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/regionaleschwerpunkte/asien/indo-pacific/2493040 (Accessed on 25 October 2022)
[vi] Gabriel Dominguez, With drills and fighter jets, German defence minister seeks stronger Indo-Pacific ties,(26 September 2022), https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/09/26/asia-pacific/german-defense-minister-asia-pacific-engagement/ (Accessed on 15 September 2022).
[vii] German Foreign Office, [@GermanyDiplo], (2 September 2020) [Tweet] https://twitter.com/germanydiplo/status/1301099961401122816 (Accessed on 12 September 2022).
[viii] Gabriel Dominguez, With drills and fighter jets, German defence minister seeks stronger Indo-Pacific ties,(26 September 2022), https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/09/26/asia-pacific/german-defense-minister-asia-pacific-engagement/ (Accessed on 15 September 2022).
[ix] Angshuman Choudhury, Europe in the Indo-Pacific: Germany and France Flex Their Muscles, (19 August 2022)https://thediplomat.com/2022/08/europe-in-the-indo-pacific-germany-and-france-flex-their-muscles/ (Accessed on 26 August 2022).
[x] Dr. Angela Stanzel , Germany’s Strategic Vision for the Indo-Pacific https://spfusa.org/publications/germanys-strategic-vision-for-the-indo-pacific/, (Accessed on 10 September 2022)
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[xii] “Germany – Europe – Asia: shaping the 21st century together”: The German Government adopts policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific region , (1 September 2020),https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/regionaleschwerpunkte/asien/german-government-policy-guidelines-indo-pacific/2380510 (Accessed on 15 September 2022)
[xiii] Indo-Pacific Deployment 2021, https://www.bundeswehr.de/en/organization/navy/news/indo-pacific-deployment-2021, (Accessed on 15 September 2022)
[xv] Joint Statement: 6th India-Germany Inter-Governmental Consultations , May 02, 2022, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateraldocuments.htm?dtl/35251/Joint_Statement_6th_IndiaGermany_InterGovernmental_Consultations (Accessed on 14 September 2022)
[xvi] Exercise Pitch Black,https://www.airforce.gov.au/news-and-events/events/exercise-pitch-black(Accessed on 18 October 2022)
[xvii] Siemtje Möller ,German defense state secretary: What ‘Zeitenwende’ really means, (2 November 2022),https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/german-deputy-defense-secretary-what-zeitenwende-really-means/ (Accessed on 20 November 2022)
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[xxi] Progress report on the implementation of the Federal Government policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific in 2022 (Progress Report Indo-Pacific 2022), https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/blob/2551720/02b94659532c6af17e40a831bed8fe57/220906-fortschrittsbericht-der-indo-pazifik-leitlinien-data.pdf (Accessed on 26 October 2022)
[xxiii]. Foreign and security policy consultations between Japan and Germany, (13 April 2021), https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/laenderinformationen/japan-node/foreign-security-policy-consultations-japan/2453746 (Accessed on 10 November 2022)
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[xxvi] Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific GERMANY – EUROPE – ASIA SHAPING THE 21ST CENTURY TOGETHER, https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/blob/2380514/f9784f7e3b3fa1bd7c5446d274a4169e/200901-indo-pazifik-leitlinien--1--data.pdf (Accessed on 17 September 2022).
[xxvii] Rafał Ulatowski , Germany in the Indo-Pacific region: strengthening the liberal order and regional security (07 March 2022), https://academic.oup.com/ia/article/98/2/383/6526921 (Accessed on 11 October 2022).
[xxviii] Seth Robson, Security situation in Indo-Pacific is relevant to Germany, officials say in Tokyo, (30 September 2022) https://www.stripes.com/theaters/asia_pacific/2022-09-30/germany-japan-indo-pacific-china-7521017.html (Accessed on 24 October 2022).
[xxix] Germany and China: Bilateral relations, (27 October 2022), https://www.auswaertig es-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/laenderinformationen/china-node/china/228916 (Accessed on 12 November 2022).