A Stronger Germany in the Indo-Pacific?

Yixiang Xu

New Research Initiative Fellow

Yixiang Xu is the New Research Initiative Fellow at AICGS, leading the Institute’s work on U.S. and German relations with China. He has written extensively on Sino-EU and Sino-German relations, transatlantic cooperation on China policy, Sino-U.S. great power competition, China's Belt-and-Road Initiative and its implications for Germany and the U.S., Chinese engagement in Central and Eastern Europe, foreign investment screening, EU and U.S. strategies for global infrastructure investment, 5G supply chain and infrastructure security, and the future of Artificial Intelligence. His written contributions have been published by institutes including The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, The United States Institute of Peace, and The Asia Society's Center for U.S.-China Relations. He has spoken on China's role in transatlantic relations at various seminars and international conferences in China, Germany, and the U.S.

Mr. Xu received his MA in International Political Economy from The Josef Korbel School of International Studies at The University of Denver and his BA in Linguistics and Classics from The University of Pittsburgh. He is an alumnus of the Bucerius Summer School on Global Governance and the Global Bridges European-American Young Leaders Conference. Mr. Xu also studied in China, Germany, Israel, Italy, and the UK and speaks Mandarin Chinese, German, and Russian.

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yxu@aicgs.org | 202-770-3262

On September 1, the German Federal Foreign Office released its new policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific region, titled “Germany-EU-Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together” (available only in German). The German government has billed the guidelines as a coherent effort to reorient its foreign and security policy approach to the strategically important region that has become increasingly vital to the country’s national interests. As Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas put it “The Himalayas and the Strait of Malacca may seem far away. But our prosperity and geopolitical influence in the coming decades are also based on how we work with the states of the Indo-Pacific.”

The document’s release came just before China’s foreign minister Wang Yi arrived in Berlin for the last leg of his long European tour, which was soon followed by another visit by the head of the Communist Party’s foreign affairs office Yang Jiechi and a virtual EU-China summit on September 14. The latest wave of China’s charm offensive reflects Beijing’s strong desire to repair bilateral relations with Europe after a string of recent events have tarnished China’s image in European capitals. Attitudes toward Beijing have steadily turned more critical in Germany and other parts of the EU for some time as China’s profile as a competitor and systemic rival for Europe grows.

While the Chinese government’s coronavirus propaganda campaign in Europe, its imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong, and its continuing systemic repression of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang dominate media headlines in Europe, Beijing’s strategic ambition to reorganize the regional order in the Indo-Pacific as it sees fit is raising alarms in Berlin as Germany seeks to protect its own local interests. Tensions in the region are rising amid the incendiary Sino-Indian border conflict and increasing Chinese naval posturing in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and around the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) islands.

Beijing’s strategic ambition to reorganize the regional order in the Indo-Pacific as it sees fit is raising alarms in Berlin as Germany seeks to protect its own local interests.

Moreover, as the guidelines point out, escalating Sino-U.S. rivalry has introduced one of the most volatile elements in regional affairs. The 2017 National Security Strategy established the Indo-Pacific as the U.S. top priority with strong anti-China characteristics. The Trump administration has expanded U.S. efforts to counter China, recruiting a coalition of democratic countries to check China’s naval posturing, curb the growth of Chinese-built infrastructure, and resist the spread of the China-led digital ecosystem and Beijing’s brand of authoritarian digital governance. Major regional powers such as Japan, India, and Australia are all in the process of reshuffling their Indo-Pacific strategies to articulate their interests and get ahead of increasing geopolitical competition. For Germany and the EU, a clear strategic vision is necessary to participate in the reshaping of the regional order with European values and preferences and not just to cope with consequences in flux.

To that end, the new guidelines succeed in enunciating Berlin’s desire for Germany and the EU to project more power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region. They reiterate the core Germany foreign policy preference of partnership, multilateralism, and a rule-based, liberal international order. They also complement the French strategy in the Indo-Pacific released in 2019 and promote foreign policy cohesion within the EU. The wide range of objectives, including multilateral engagement, climate change, human rights, security and stability, digital transformation, cultural and scientific exchanges, and rule-based, fair, and sustainable free trade presents a highly ambitious German agenda, which stands out as one of the most comprehensive regional strategies to date, at least on paper.

Germany attempts to balance its interests in China and those in the broader region and avoid being locked into a binary choice in the Sino-U.S. strategic rivalry.

But despite the emerging China-critical politics in Berlin, the new guidelines are not indicative of a new German policy that would seriously challenge Beijing. Just as France, Germany attempts to balance its interests in China and those in the broader region and avoid being locked into a binary choice in the Sino-U.S. strategic rivalry. The document rejects unipolarity or bipolarity and declares that “No country should, as during the Cold War, have to choose between two sides. The free choice to adhere to economic and political institutions is central for the Indo-Pacific region.” Instead, Germany would work with the EU to strengthen multilateral institutions, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), to resolve conflicts and push the European agenda.

Herein lies a major contradiction for the German approach. Multilateral institutions have a very mixed record of upholding rule-based orders in the region and cooperation is often confined to economic issues, where China is still a preferred bilateral partner. Many Asian-Pacific countries have long practiced the art of voluntary association and will continue to do so at their own convenience and to hedge against Sino-U.S. conflicts. Germany may want to find a “third way” by engaging regional states with the German economic engine and the European single market, but its success will depend on Berlin’s ability to push back on Beijing’s often opaque bilateral diplomacy and assemble a coalition of regional partners who are willing to defend collective rules and principles.

That doesn’t sound too different from the purported U.S. objectives in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, some key regional partners for Germany, including Japan, India, and Australia, have already signed up to a U.S.-led alliance and collaborate on many of the same issues outlined in the German guidelines, including infrastructure investment and digital security. Yet the document’s scarce mentioning of the U.S., with the exception of potential disruptive effects of Washington’s unilateral policy to contain China in the region, reflects the rising sentiment in Berlin that the U.S. has become an unreliable partner who seeks to impose its will on allies at their expense. Many in Germany are increasingly embracing the idea of European autonomy and are becoming more ambiguous about adopting a position of equidistance toward the two major global powers.

Many in Germany are increasingly embracing the idea of European autonomy and are becoming more ambiguous about adopting a position of equidistance toward the two major global powers.

That would be a serious strategic mistake. It’s increasingly clear Germany and the EU’s bilateral engagement with China has fallen well short of delivering Europe’s policy objectives and the Chinese government has dug in on issues such as market access, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and intellectual property protection, which are still regarded in Berlin and Brussels as mutually beneficial. Moreover, Beijing is well aware of the limitation of European influence in the Indo-Pacific. A recent commentary in Global Times, the Chinese government’s main mouthpiece on foreign policy, retorts that “A lack of hard power and an over-confidence of the influence of the European ‘soft power’ has to some degree crippled Europe’s capacity to project substantial influence to the far away coasts of the Indian and Pacific Ocean. […] Europe and Germany do have an ambition to occupy an outstanding position in the regional affairs of the Indo-Pacific maritime areas, but it is likely their ambitions may not be sufficiently supported by actual deeds.”

In other words, Germany and the EU will struggle to get a seat at the table or be taken seriously by important regional stakeholders regarding regional security issues so long as the bloc lacks the capacity to project military power. Europe’s key interest in open waterways and freedom of navigation still very much depends on U.S. and allied naval power projection in the Indo-Pacific. It’s also unclear that Germany and the EU alone will be able to defend their human rights values or counter China’s Belt-and-Road (BRI) initiative. Beijing is more or less indifferent to European complaints of its human rights practices and doesn’t believe that Berlin or Brussels will put up sufficient resources to challenge China’s infrastructure and digital expansion in the region.

These are earnest reasons for Germany to take a hard look at cooperation with the U.S. while implementing its new Indo-Pacific strategy. Some Chinese analysts believe that Germany may just offer symbolic support to the U.S. in order to further its economic interest s in the region under the U.S. security umbrella. Let’s hope Berlin’s new strategic efforts go well beyond that.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.