Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 01, 2020
Germany is the second EU country to have an Indo-Pacific policy after France — which views itself as an Indian Ocean country. Germany seeks to be part of this external balancing of the region, but without exercising any real power.
Germany takes view of the Indo-Pacific

Germany announced a new policy for the Indo Pacific (IP) on 1 September 2020. This came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi concluded his European trip, two weeks before the EU-China summit. This is during Germany’s EU Presidency and has come as a surprise. The IP region is key to shaping the international order in the 21st century. Berlin is anxious that instability will impact its economic ties. Trade with Asia is 20 percent (420 billion) of Germany’s global trade. Germany wants to be a part of this engagement with a functional, not a realist outlook. It is supporting rules, not power, multipolarity and not unipolar dependence.

Germany is the second EU country to have an IP policy after France, which views itself as an Indian Ocean country. Germany seeks to be part of this external balancing of the region but without exercising any real power. Despite the failure of Germanys ‘change through trade’ with China, its main emphasis remains on maintaining its economic partnership with Beijing while trying a few trial balloons to point out its variations from expected norms, such as on Hong Kong. There is an over expectation among analysts of the China factor in Germany’s new announcement. The IP view is ‘China Plus’ — not a reaction to China.

There is an over expectation among analysts of the China factor in Germany’s new announcement.

Germany considers the IP to be the entire region characterised by the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. Marine pollution and climate change, rule of law, human rights, migration, education, culture and science and technology (S&T) are the dominant themes. Security plays a role too, but a milder one. The German policy aims to promote an EU Indo-Pacific strategy of which it will be a part. Through that, FTAS, RVCS to avoid dependencies, digital connectivity, counter disinformation, and the like will be focused upon. Modern technology, which will keep Germany competitive, will be a German priority.

The preparation

Germany is not a member of the ARF or the EAS, but has enhanced interactions with the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) as a Dialogue Partner. Its first foray was at the IORA ministerial meeting in Indonesia in 2015. Since then, Germany started to build coherence within its ministries. The MFA held the Indian Ocean Conference in June 2015 where then Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked Germany to take a closer look at the Indian Ocean as global attention shifted. His speech was functional, and little was said about security.

A paper in 2017 by scholar Garima Mohan suggested strengthening IORA and expanding maritime cooperation with India. Naval diplomacy and more EU based interaction were also proposed. It noted that the German navy was not a regional player in the IP. In 2017, the MFA reorganised its Directorates and created a new one for the Asia-Pacific. Following this, GIZ initiated a project to support the IORA secretariat in disaster management, maritime safety and the blue economy. The IP view has an all of government approach in this with many ministries involved showing perhaps why it took longer to enunciate.

Defence cooperation with India hinges on the German efforts to provide submarines to India.

With India, Germany has mentioned the Indian Ocean albeit only in passing. During Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit in 2019, both sides supported freedom of navigation under UNCLOS. In April 2017, Germany held its first ever Conference of Ambassadors to the IOR in Colombo and invited then Foreign Secretary Dr S. Jaishankar to address it. Defence cooperation with India hinges on the German efforts to provide submarines to India. The Germans have already lost such a contract to their French competitors in Australia in 2016. While other IP powers have opened 2+2 format ministerial talks with India, Germany avoids that on principle and keeps the talks at summit level with multiple ministers participating in an inter-governmental format. The defence minister has not been a part of these. The importance of India as an IP actor is recognised in Germany but how to make its policy effective using only functional cooperation remains unclear.

India is mentioned 57 times, in the IP document, and ASEAN 66 times. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the press briefing on the policy said that the Himalayas and Malacca are far away but remain important. Diversification is the main theme of the policy, but seems more intended to woo ASEAN than India or Japan. Vietnam, China and South Korea are its main trade targets. Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Australia and Indonesia are also mentioned. The EU Japan Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership of September 2019 is seen as an alternative to BRI, however, Germany’s own role on this again remains unclear.

Berlin seeks to diversify its Asia policy beyond China and looks at IP and the democracies within it such as India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia. German IP policy is clearly not anti-China, and in fact is careful to remain so. It is more like trying to expand its role in the IP so it’s not left out of the growing proceedings.

Diversification is the main theme of the policy, but seems more intended to woo ASEAN than India or Japan. Vietnam, China and South Korea are its main trade targets.

The economic angle

Berlin’s new regional strategy putters around the fairway of trade policy without risking the price of a fulsome strategic reordering with China. Germany has remained troubled with the US-China trade war and seeks to defend and expand markets. The Asia-Pacific Conference of German Business is an old organisation that reflects the lethargy of the official policy on the region, but is seen now as picking up focus. In 2018, their biannual conference was in Jakarta and 2020 was scheduled for Tokyo, reflecting current interests.

Germany and the EU are in tandem on the issue of FTAs. FTAs are pursued but seek higher standards which meet with resistance. The enthusiasm with which Vietnam embraced the EU FTA has not percolated to the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. They remain skeptical that access to the EU will not lead to demands on internal political and environmental matters. Several ASEAN countries believe the EU follows unequal trade policies while the EU believes its trade policy cannot violate its values. Thus, how much will German trade policy to ASEAN really achieve?

France has formed a trilateral with India and Australia to discuss strategic issues. Germany has not taken similar measured steps. German interlocutors say they cannot guide their companies to strategic decisions. Thus, they cannot see Germany trying the plurilateral VCs effort. It appears that Germany is keen to keep its trade equations with China on even keel and not upset them by joining RVCs which may be considered as devolution. In Europe, checks on Chinese investment and action against Huawei 5G networks were taken by UK and France, but not yet in Germany.

The EU follows unequal trade policies while it believes its trade policy cannot violate its values. How much will German trade policy to ASEAN really achieve?

How far does it reach?

The German Navy (Deutsche Marine) has 80 vessels, including nine frigates, five corvettes, two minesweepers, ten minehunters, six submarines, 14 patrol vessels amongst others. The French run a 180-vessel blue water navy which includes an aircraft carrier and nuclear weapons capacities. Japan has 154 ships including helicopter carriers and is among the 10 largest navies in the world. The Germans are not in that league and lack real defence cooperation capability. As part of IP policy, it may ask its naval assets in the region to be more visible and participate in HADR exercises so long as they are not seen negatively by China. A German Naval officer is now located in Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre, with cyber security with Singapore and other partners like India likely to be intensified.

France announced its IP policy in 2019. Germany plans together toward an EU strategy on the IP. Berlin aims to boost its influence on the issue by having the entire EU on its side. At the same time, Europe collectively seems to be reviewing its relations with China. The EU in 2019 called out China as a “strategic competitor” and “systemic rival” emphasising the trade and technological competition which Beijing had brought into the EU. A transition to a less warm relationship with China is occurring, but once again the Germans cannot seem to guide their companies who are devoted to China as that is where the most business is achieved.

One noteworthy step is the Germany-UK- France statement on the UNCLOS and its relevance to the UN Secretary General. This preceded the launch of its IP policy. It recalls the arbitration award and the ongoing COC discussions between ASEAN and China. Berlin wants to start a partnership for EU with ASEAN soon and then raise German ASEAN engagement to the EU level. On FTAs it has to follow the EU lead and does not, even in the case of India, play a determining role in their conclusion. The new IP outlook shows more German interest in the region without directly confronting Beijing. Is it an effort to protect the gateway for its trade or to develop its economic engagement while it works out the strategic numbers? Time will tell.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Gurjit Singh

Gurjit Singh

Gurjit Singh has served as Indias ambassador to Germany Indonesia Ethiopia ASEAN and the African Union. He is the Chair of CII Task Force on ...

Read More +