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Will Germany reduce its security role in Southeast Asia?

March 25, 2022

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany increased its military spending substantially. Wary of the crisis closer to home, Berlin might not be able to play its role in providing security to other parts of the world.

The German frigate Bayern
Much depends on how the German military intends to spend the increased defense spendingImage: Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images

Since at least 2018, Berlin has committed itself to playing a security role in the Indo-Pacific, as has almost every other major Western power. It is partly because of the growing economic importance of the region, but also the result of China's increasing clout in the area.

In September 2020, Berlin published its Indo-Pacific guideline paper, months before the EU's strategy.

"Germany and the EU want to deepen their security engagement in the [Indo-Pacific] region in order to help strengthen the rules-based international order," a German Foreign Ministry statement asserted ahead of Europe's first Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum on February 22, an event overshadowed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine two days later.

A German frigate, Bayern, was deployed to the Indo-Pacific for the first time last August, docking in 11 countries during its seven-month voyage, including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore.

But after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Germany's attention has been diverted to concerns closer to home. There will be "a leveling-off, if not decline, of European military presence in the Indo-Pacific" says Christian Wirth, research fellow at the GIGA Institute for Asian Studies in Hamburg.

A new era?

Other analysts aren't so sure. "With the Ukraine war, Germany has entered a new era in its security and defense policy, but this does not change the interests of Germany in the Indo Pacific," said Elli-Katharina Pohlkamp, a visiting fellow of the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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"The aim to deepen security ties in the Indo Pacific existed even before Germany's grand defense spending shift and will continue as previously planned," she told DW.

Even if Germany is distracted by the Ukraine war, it does not mean it would divert its spending from the Indo-Pacific to Europe, noted Hai Hong Nguyen, an honorary research fellow at the University of Queensland's Center for Policy Futures.

A big deciding factor, said Hai, is what happens with China. Beijing has taken an ambiguous response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, leaving international relations scholars puzzled.

For some, Russia's apparent military failings in Ukraine and the united Western response could give Beijing pause for thought about its own ambitions. Others, however, reckon Beijing is more emboldened to assert its own territorial claims, including its persistent threat to invade, or "reunify," Taiwan.

Germany's security interests in the Indo-Pacific are not going to be "reduced given China's increasingly assertive and aggressive actions challenging the established international rule-based order," said Hai.

Germany's pivot to the Indo-Pacific has been partly motivated by Berlin changing its stance on Beijing, analysts say, with China increasingly viewed as a rival, not partner, during former Chancellor Angela Merkel's last years in office.

'Hard' and 'soft' security

Much depends on how the German military intends to spend the increased defense spending the government pledges.

It could primarily go to the army at the expense of the navy, but a strong navy is essential if Germany is to play a role in the Indo-Pacific's chiefly maritime concerns, including Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and against the island of Taiwan.

Alfred Gerstl, an expert on Indo-Pacific international relations at the University of Vienna, said Germany could use parts of the increased defense budget to strengthen its maritime capacities. Only through such an upgrade will Germany be considered a "credible political and security actor in the Indo-Pacific," he added.

Germany would send a "strong political signal" if it engages in a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, where several Southeast Asian states rival China for contested territory, Gerstl said.

American vessels have regularly engaged in such operations, in which US warships pass close by some of the contested islands, indicating to China that it must respect the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Britain's navy has engaged in something similar, although not as frequently as the US.

Germany's former navy chief, Kay-Achim Schonbach, suggested in late 2021 that Berlin wants to send vessels to the Indo-Pacific every two years, meaning another tour in 2023. Berlin hasn't officially commented on this. But as Wirth pointed out, senior German defense officials have questioned whether it would be possible.

Away from the hard power of naval frigates, there are various options of deepening security relations in non-traditional security areas, such as cybersecurity cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, said Pohlkamp. Japan and Germany have recently stepped up cooperation on this front; an agreement on the security of information was signed in March 2021.

Maritime security can also be promoted through increased investment, such as in the region's port security and port buildings. She highlighted the role Germany plays in the EU's newly launched Global Gateway, a €300 billion investment scheme that ostensibly attempts to rival China's more spendthrift Belt and Road Initiative.

Angela Stanzel, an associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, argues for cautious optimism. "Germany will engage more actively in Indo-Pacific security issues, though always within a European framework and probably not as actively as France," she said.

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Edited by: Shamil Shams