Germany's Lone Pacific Warship Marks the End of Merkel-era Dovishness
During the Merkel era, critics of German foreign policy criticized Berlin's stance as prioritizing trade over all else. That era, however, seems set to change.
Berlin is signaling its support for a rules-based order above trade in a departure from the last two decades of foreign policy. As tension slowly builds in the Indo-Pacific, Germany is ramping up its presence in the region, sending a warship on a Pacific voyage for the first time in twenty years. Although the ship Bayern, a Brandenburg-class frigate, is not exactly a state-of-the-art navy vessel, its deployment to Asia marks a departure from previous German policy in the region.
The importance of the Indo-Pacific region is hard to overstate. One German Foreign Office document summarizes the outsize role the region plays in terms of trade and population:
"With China, Japan and the US, the world's three largest economies have Pacific coastlines. Almost 60 percent of global GDP and two-thirds of global growth are generated in the Indo-Pacific. As much as 25 percent of international maritime trade passes through the Strait of Malacca alone; if these maritime trade routes were to be impeded, the effects on supply chains to and from Europe and thus on Europeans' prosperity and access to vital goods would be severe."
In addition, the Indo-Pacific region is "home to around 60 percent of the global population and 20 of the world's 33 megacities; it is also the source of more than half of all global carbon emissions. This makes the region's countries key players in tackling global challenges such as the climate crisis."
Trade, Trade, Trade
The German economy is export-driven—everything from automobiles to transport equipment to industrial machinery. And fully a fifth of German trade is conducted in Asia. The country is a significant destination for Asian raw materials, underscoring the region's importance to Europe's largest economy. In a speech in late December, Germany's ambassador to Singapore, Dr. Norbert Riedel, stated that "for Germany, the Indo-Pacific region is of great importance, as it is for the European Union and its member states."
Detractors point out that the Bayern set sail on its own, without the support and importance of a larger flotilla. Moreover, the ship did not sail near Taiwan, supposedly to avoid stoking tensions with China, one of Germany's most significant trading partners. Furthermore, the deployment made scarce reference to Taiwan, perhaps Asia's number one potential flashpoint, opting instead to voice support for the "rules-based order" and multilateral cooperation, international law, and freedom of navigation. The Bayern itself is not a particularly powerful ship compared to some of the United States or China's naval vessels, though its deployment is perhaps more significant than its capabilities.
Under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, German foreign policy walked between trade ties with China and strategic relations with the United States and other allies. During the Merkel era, critics of German foreign policy criticized Berlin's stance as prioritizing trade over all else. That era, however, seems set to change.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer with the National Interest. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson