October 16, 2020

Germany’s New Approach to the Indo-Pacific

Berlin is following in Paris’ footsteps in embracing the “Indo-Pacific” concept, at the risk of antagonizing China. This could lay the foundations for the EU to develop a coherent strategy toward the region.

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German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas
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On September 2, 2020, the German government released a document entitled “Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region. Germany—Europe—Asia: shaping the 21st century together,” in which the country for the first time officially endorsed the concept of the “Indo-Pacific.” Coming after months of inter-ministerial dialogue during which the German government appeared reluctant to even use term “Indo-Pacific,” the publication signaled a change in the country’s approach to the issue and attracted significant international attention and comments. The document was welcomed by Germany’s Asian partners, such as India and Japan, but also by France, which was the first European country to publish an Indo-Pacific strategy, back in 2018, and has been trying ever since to convince its European partners to endorse the concept.

Questions arose, however, regarding not only the motivation but also the depth and significance of the policy change. Some have blamed Germany for publishing a document that they perceive as excessively cautious vis-à-vis China, while Beijing in turn has blamed Germany for making such a politically significant move. It can be argued, however, that the value of the German document should be seen less in terms of its content than in its very existence. Furthermore, the circumstances of its publication are important, given the fact that, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most EU member states are increasingly skeptical about China’s intentions and question the evolution of their relationship with Beijing but are yet undecided as to what direction that should now take. Substantively, the German’s policy guidelines are cautious enough to reassure Berlin’s European partners and for the same reason constitute a powerful instrument to mobilize them behind a unified European Indo-Pacific strategy. Indeed, Germany’s public stance will likely impact the EU’s position, Brussels having so far refused to endorse the concept. It should however be careful not to do so at the expense of a potential EU strategy.

German Objectives and the China Question

As stated in the German document, although the Indo-Pacific constitutes a common conceptual frame of reference for Australia, India, Japan, France, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), these countries differ in terms of “their, emphasis on policy fields, the importance they ascribe to multilateral approaches and, above all, with respect to China’s involvement as a regional power and emerging world power.” From this perspective, Germany is no different and naturally defines the Indo-Pacific according to its own interests.

The China question deserves particular examination in this context. The Indo-Pacific concept is primarily about ways to manage the rise of China. This should not be mistaken for a willingness to contain China. Countries that have adopted the Indo-Pacific concept in one form or another, all want to maintain substantial cooperation with Beijing. Yet they also all want to protect themselves against what they perceive as China hegemonic designs and interference. Their differences on how to achieve these seemingly contradictory objectives, as well as the more or less explicit character of the latter in the various documents published so far on the issue, are essentially reflective of their own individual vulnerabilities. China is indeed a central concern. The German policy guidelines are no exception. From the mention of the “numerous disputed boundaries” that are affecting the Indo-Pacific, to the potential dangers of hegemony and the need for diversified, politically deeper and security-intensive partnerships, as well as in the insistence on fair competition when developing connectivity, or, even more so, the insistence on the importance of “closing ranks with democracies and partners with shared values in the region,” every German interest expressed in the policy guidelines points to China, even though obliquely and through positive language.

From this perspective, the policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific reflect the negative evolution of China-Germany relations over the past few months but also the growing discontent vis-à-vis China throughout Europe over Beijing’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the growing dependency on China for supplies of critical goods. They also express, at a deeper level, frustration vis-à-vis the lack of reciprocity in economic exchanges, as well as with Beijing’s systematic distortion of international law and subsequent attempts to impose its own international order.

In this context, the timing of the publication of the policy guidelines, following a five-nation European tour by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, can be seen as politically significant and was perceived as such in China. Berlin’s has explicitly refused to take sides in the Sino-US polarization and is carefully trying to balance its opposition to Chinese hegemony with an equal reluctance to a systematic alignment on Washingtonthe United States is never mentioned by name but only alluded to through the reference to power rivalry or the risks involved for Germany of the “consolidation of bipolar structures”. Nevertheless, the ultra-nationalist Chinese newspaper Global Times reacted to the German document by insisting on the politically charged character of the term Indo-Pacific, trying to drive an wedge between the Europeans and Americans, dismissing Europe’s influence in the Indo-Pacific, and warning that relations between China and Europe may never be the same should businesses be moved from China to India or Southeast Asia.

It can be debated whether the German document deserves such harsh treatment, even from China’s perspective. The title of the document“guidelines” and not “strategy”is an indication that Germany does not intend to adopt a confrontational outlook. Furthermore, a deeper examination of the “initiatives” proposed by the document shows a very cautious approach that does not differ fundamentally in substance from Germany’s existing policies.

A Certain Ambivalence

The choice of ASEAN as a priority field of action is consistent with its economic importance for Germany, but also reflects some ambivalence when it comes to multilateralism. Because ASEAN operates on a consensus-based decision-making process, Germany seems to be delegating responsibility. This consensus-based decision-making process has historically always been a guarantee against hegemonic temptations wherever they were coming from but the center of gravity of the region is shifting away from ASEAN as both China and the United States are asking member states to choose sides. The proposals can be seen at one level as a contribution to the strengthening of the regional security architecture. But Berlin seems to only be paying lip service to security matters, with a strong insistence only on cooperative security and dialogues.

By contrast it could be observed, for example, that the “French Strategy for the Indo-Pacific,” which was the outcome of a series of documents from various ministries as well as speeches by French President Emmanuel Macron, contains similar elements but also includes a military dimension defined by the French Ministry of Armed forces. Even though, there is an equal willingness on the French side to avoid unnecessary confrontation, the French strategy for the Indo-Pacific plays on a larger set of options that lend additional credibility to its various security partnerships.

In his May 2018 speech at the Garden Island naval base in Sydney, Macron had emphasized the China dimension, including in security matters, as well as full respect for reciprocity in economic and trade relationships. Like Germany today, his concept of the Indo-Pacific included nuclear security and safety, and insisted on climate change because of its consequences for the countries in the region, in particular the island states. The convergence on these matters does indeed open up space for strong cooperation.

Yet the concept developed by the French president went further, insisting on sovereignty, not just for the French territories of the Indo-Pacific but for the entire region, as well as the need to establish cooperation that could help protect access for France and its partners to vital areas and routes that could come under threat.   

When it comes to both France and Germany’s recent publications on the region, it is true that official documents do not often allow for easy assessments of their authors’ commitment to specific issues. The rule is to profess the strongest possible intentions while leaving as little room as possible for interpretation regarding the peaceful character of one’s motives, while the concrete articulation and implementation of various objectives can on the contrary betray a carefully thought out strategic purpose. This is especially so when it comes to addressing what strategists call strategic gray areas, in which military assets are not the sole or even the main factor but act in combination with economic or even environmental considerations, combined with military ones.

A Potential for Mobilization

Whatever Berlin’s actual intentions, the value of the document on the Indo-Pacific is to some extent connected more to its existence more than in its content. Germany is only the second country in Europe to have produced a blueprint for engagement with the region. This is in itself an indication that the Indo-Pacific is not yet a popular concept among EU member states, who believe that the endorsement of the Indo-Pacific concept would be perceived by China as an alignment with the United-States and fear the potential consequences for their own relations with China, including possible complications for business.

But there is little doubt that, alone but most likely in tandem with France, Germany has the capacity to mobilize EU member states in the drafting of an EU Indo-Pacific strategy. It is no coincidence that the announcement of the policy guidelines took place only a few weeks after Germany assumed the EU Council presidency. It places Germany in a unique position to shape the EU’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. Berlin has made it clear that it intends to “contribute to a future overall EU strategy.” Interestingly in this context, Germany’s change of posture after its initial reluctance to endorse the Indo-Pacific concept, at a time when countries across Europe are becoming increasingly skeptical of China’s intentions, reinforces the signal to other member states in search of a China policy.

Adopting a common EU strategy on the Indo-Pacific would indeed help Europe rebalance its relationship with China. Wang Yi’s recent tour of Europe was widely perceived as an attempt at damage control in the face of mounting criticism of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus, but also as an effort to prevent the formation of an anti-China coalition. No matter how dismissive the Chinese leadership is of Europe’s influence in the Indo-Pacific, an EU united into an Indo-Pacific framework would undoubtedly confer it some leverage. Germany’s “Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region” do not intend to threaten China. They are nevertheless an indication that Europe is moving in a direction that Beijing may not be comfortable with and would be wrong to ignore. The German “Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region” are therefore a welcome move. They constitute a strong signal for Europe. They are reassuring enough to constitute the basis of a European consensus, and a chance for the EU to help redefine its relations with Beijing peacefully and on its own terms.

However, Berlin will ultimately achieve its objectives only if it does not shy away from the need to build a rapport de force with China. The German policy guidelines are a commendable effort at consensus building in Europe. This does not contradict the fact that European unity on the matter should not come at the cost of emptying the Indo-Pacific of its strategic substance.

Frédéric Grare is a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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