BERLIN – German frigate Bayern is set to take part in exercises with Japan, the United States, Australia and Canada after a stopover in Tokyo that begins on Friday, as Berlin seeks to strengthen relations with other democracies with interests in the Indo-Pacific.
The ship, which set sail in August, will dock in the Japanese capital until November 12, according to the German Navy, after which it will join a joint 20-ship exercise. Bayern had sought to stop in Shanghai on their Indo-Pacific tour but were refused.
The rare Indo-Pacific naval deployment of a European nation with no overseas territories comes amid the start of a change in Germany’s attitude towards Beijing with the imminent departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had long been relatively friendly to China.
Germany issued foreign policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific in September 2020 which call for “closing ranks with democracies and value-sharing partners.”
The document was boosted by Beijing asserting its claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere, as well as human rights concerns over China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and the treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority population. Berlin was also responding to growing concerns about too much economic dependence on China, given the lingering tensions between Beijing and Washington.
Although China remains Germany’s largest trading partner, business leaders have shown growing frustration with issues such as forced technology transfers.
A July report by the Federation of German Industries argued that economic interconnection with China did not naturally foster free trade and democracy as many had hoped. “‘Transformation through trade’ has reached its limits,” the report said.
How Germany’s approach to China will change after Merkel is the main question. Talks continue after the parliamentary elections in September, but the most likely outcome is a three-party coalition involving the Social Democratic Party, the Green Party and the Libertarian Free Democratic Party.
The three sides released a 12-page exploratory document that did not explicitly address China, but emphasized “close cooperation with states that share our democratic values” and “systemic competition with authoritarian states and dictatorships.” .
The Greens and Free Democrats “have in recent years developed a position on China that is different from that of the federal government under Merkel,” said Maximilian Mayer, professor of international relations at the University of Bonn.
With the Green Party’s focus on human rights and the FDP’s focus on free market rules, a coalition involving the two could take a harder hit on China.
But it’s still unclear to what extent the coalition would stick to these principles, even if they hurt Germany economically. The deep economic ties between the two countries are unlikely to change overnight.
The coalition should align itself with France and other major players in the European Union to seek a united path. German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, seen as the most likely choice for the chancellor in a government led by the Social Democrats, is pro-EU.
Bayern are expected to cross the South China Sea on their way through the Indo-Pacific, but not the Taiwan Strait, hinting that Berlin remains reluctant to go too far in provoking Beijing.