Germany’s Indo-Pacific frigate may send unclear message

Changing plans show how naval deployments can undermine rather than help both the upholding of international law and a strategy of deterrence against China.

Expert comment Published 4 May 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 2 minute READ

Hans Kundnani

Former Associate Fellow, Europe Programme

Michito Tsuruoka

Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University

When it recently emerged that Germany was planning to deploy the Bayern frigate to the South China Sea, it was widely interpreted as a move towards taking a tougher stand against China’s territorial claims in Asia. Defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer framed the deployment as a demonstration of solidarity with allies and ‘like-minded’ partners in the region.

Despite Germany’s dependence on China as an export market and the close political relationship between Beijing and Berlin over the past decade, it seemed Germany was prepared to go beyond a rhetorical commitment to the international rule of law and take concrete steps to uphold it alongside France and the UK, both of which have carried out ‘presence operations’ in the Indo-Pacific recently.

The publication by the German government last September of ‘guidelines’ for Indo-Pacific policy – which called for an expanded security presence in the region – had also strengthened this impression. When Germany followed France and the UK in holding its first 2+2 meeting of foreign and defence ministers with Japan last month, the Japanese proposed joint naval exercises with the German frigate.

However, as details of the Bayern’s trip have emerged, it now looks as if the message it will send will be more unclear. Due to internal differences within the German government, the original plans for the deployment appear to have changed to specifically avoid antagonizing Beijing.

A missed opportunity

The deployment idea has been a long time in the making. The driving force behind it was Kramp-Karrenbauer, who first proposed it when she became defence minister in 2019. Although initially opposed, the chancellery finally agreed on condition the frigate would not go through the Taiwan Strait.

Due to internal differences within the German government, the original plans for the deployment appear to have changed to specifically avoid antagonizing Beijing

There then followed long negotiations with the foreign ministry, which is led by the Social Democrats. Its parliamentary leader Rolf Mützenich is a vocal critic of the idea, which he compared to Wilhelmine Germany’s famous demand for a ‘place in the sun’.

Originally the plan was to deploy the Hamburg frigate in 2020 but this was put on hold because of the pandemic. This year a new plan emerged to send the Bayern frigate for a six-month deployment from August 2021. It will take part in a NATO operation in the Mediterranean and an EU anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa before going to the Pacific.

The timing of the deployment created the possibility of joining up three overlapping European deployments as a British carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth II, which will include a Dutch frigate, and the French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship Tonnerre are also going to the Indo-Pacific in 2021.

This could have gone a long way towards the kind of coordinated European presence in the region to support international law that French defence minister Yves Le Drian called for back in 2016.

Germany had already publicly declared it would not send the frigate within 12 nautical miles of any territory claimed by China, even though maintaining ambiguity about the deployment would have made strategic sense. But despite that declaration, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson still warned Germany the principle of freedom of navigation ‘should not be used as an excuse to endanger the sovereignty and security of littoral countries’.

Now the German defence ministry seems to have modified the plan for the deployment. Instead of travelling clockwise through the Pacific as originally planned, the Bayern will go anti-clockwise, making it impossible for it to do a passing exercise with CSG21, the UK carrier group. So, rather than coordinating with European allies, let alone the United States, Germany is doing its own thing – a ‘missed opportunity’ according to one German official.

European naval deployments can actively undermine rather than help uphold international law or support a strategy of deterrence against China

The Bayern will now also make a port visit to Shanghai and, because this is scheduled to take place before the Bayern enters the South China Sea, some officials worry that it could actually convey the impression Germany has in effect asked China for permission, therefore strengthening rather than challenging Chinese claims over the South China Sea.

Regional partners such as Japan want Germany to keep a clear distinction between their joint naval training and exercises with the frigate, and its visit to China which they want to ensure remains solely ceremonial rather than operational – any exercises between the German frigate and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy would cause concern. But Beijing will likely want to blur that distinction and talk up the significance of any joint exercises, or even staff meetings.

Pressure from allies, not deterrence

As Arnaud Boehmann points out, the heart of the problem is that Germany is deploying the Bayern in response to pressure from allies such as France, the UK, the US, and ‘like-minded’ regional partners such as Japan rather than because it is committed to a strategy of deterrence towards China. It is therefore trying to square the circle of how to deploy a warship to the South China Sea without appearing to challenge China.

The plan for the deployment is not yet final and could be changed again. But it illustrates European naval deployments can actively undermine rather than help uphold international law or support a strategy of deterrence against China – in fact, they can even go so far as to strengthen Chinese territorial claims in Asia. Everything depends on the detail.