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The recent publication of Germany's guidelines for the Indo-Pacific, a policy paper on the country’s approach to the region, has led to speculation that Berlin may be about to change its traditionally Beijing-friendly foreign policy.
In the opening remarks of the guidelines, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas points out that the future of the rules-based international order will be decided in the Indo-Pacific. He also argues that Germany needs to diversify its trade relations. What does it all mean? Richard Javad Heydarian, a Manila-based academic, notes the policy paper’s intention to make an ‘active contribution’ to the Indo-Pacific and contends that this language will ‘inevitably rile China’. Sebastian Strangio, an author and journalist, has similarly argued that it ‘unmistakably signals Europe’s growing reassessment of its approach to China’. China's ultra-nationalist propaganda outlet Global Times has even worried about a possible convergence of German and US foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific.
Not So Fast
In reality, however, foreign policy change in Germany develops at a glacial pace. In the guidelines' preface, Maas seeks to distance Germany from the increasing US–China rivalry. While paying lip service to security matters, a more active German role does not aim at strengthening the US-led security architecture in East and Southeast Asia. Instead, Maas hones in on conventional instruments of ‘entanglement’ (Verflechtung) through multilateral diplomacy, coupled with trade, investment, and development aid. The German government also signalled its willingness to provide its experience and expertise to the region, strengthen both arms export control and arms control, participate in collective security measures and to help implement UN resolutions.
On closer inspection, it thus becomes clear that the guidelines amount to pouring old wine into new bottles. While the newly published document does indicate that Germany's regional focus is gradually shifting from China to other parts of the Indo-Pacific, the new policy announcement offers no critical self-reflection about existing shortcomings of Berlin’s previous China engagement. Key challenges in Germany's relationship with China are only hinted at. While the term China is mentioned 59 times in the document, no attempt is being made to critically reflect on Germany's failed 'change through trade' policy vis-a-vis China. This stands in stark contrast to the ‘US Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China’ document, which made it very clear that the US government was disappointed that years of constructive China engagement had not led to political liberalisation.
Change Through Trade 2.0?
The German guidelines also exaggerate the significance of China as Germany's supposedly biggest trade partner, not only in the Indo-Pacific, but globally. In a recent media interview, the Director of Mercator Institute for China Studies Mikko Huotari demystified German trade with China, which only makes up about 7% of Germany’s overall volume – the reality remains that the vast bulk of Germany’s trade is still conducted within Europe, and followed by the US. To justify the shift from an exclusive focus on China towards the Indo-Pacific, the German guidelines mention the disruption brought by coronavirus and the need to diversify supply chains and markets. Yet it is not clear how successful German businesses can be in an Indo-Pacific region which is already heavily dominated by Chinese trade and commerce.
While the guidelines include well-known criticism of China's flagship Belt and Road Initiative – by pointing out, for instance, reckless Chinese lending practices leading to over-indebtedness and subsequent debt-for-equity swaps – the German policy paper does not offer even a tentative clue as to how Germany aims to address existing power imbalances in the region. Instead, the guidelines vaguely articulate a German desire to avoid uni- or bipolarity. And while pledging to strengthen regional multilateralism by closely working with ASEAN may sound reasonable, it does little to address the specific challenge of emerging Chinese client states such as Laos within ASEAN, or Pakistan outside it.
Germany's approach to China is downright craven when it comes to the issue of disinformation. Instead of naming China as the main culprit of disinformation in the Indo-Pacific, the authors of the policy paper use the evasive term 'authoritarian actors and states'. This echoes the practice of the European External Action Service, which toned down its rhetoric in a public report on Chinese disinformation in Europe in April 2020.
The unwillingness to address the elephant in the room is also evident in environmental protection, one of Germany's key preoccupations. The German government, for instance, explicitly pledges to support the 2021–25 Strategic Plan of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – an inter-governmental organisation that works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to jointly manage the river’s shared water resources. Yet a recent MRC report highlighted that ‘upstream hydropower dams—mostly in China—[are holding] back a large amount of water’. So, while supporting multilateral approaches to transboundary water resource management is a laudable goal, the question still remains why the Sino–German Energy Partnership (2007–2022) appears to have failed to convince senior Chinese decision-makers to reverse excessive dam building, stop impounding more water than China needs or even make water management data public. Without critical introspection about the apparent failures of the supposedly depoliticised technical assistance to China, Germany is unlikely to win hearts and minds in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Whilst there is a declared desire to engage with civil societies in the Indo-Pacific, there does not seem any awareness that China has emerged as a non-traditional development donor. As recent research by the Institute of Development Studies points out, in the case of Cambodia, ‘China’s emergence as a development actor ... appears to be changing the normative environment within which policies on civil society and thinking about its role in the development process are made’. This raises the question how German state and non-state organisations can constructively engage with civil societies that are being moulded in the CCP's authoritarian image.
Such a naïve approach is also evident on the matter of territorial disputes in the region. Instead of reminding China to honour UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’s ‘clear and binding ruling on China’s claims vis-à-vis the Philippines in the South China Sea’, the German government pins it hopes on a Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China, an initiative which has made little headway due to Beijing's intransigence.
The guidelines descend into the outright farcical when it comes to one of the biggest geopolitical hotspots in the region: Taiwan is not even mentioned once. But how can Germany contribute to peace and security without taking a stand against Xi Jinping's threat to annex Taiwan by military means? It is also worth pointing out that this deliberate omission comes at a time when liberal democratic Taiwan has had remarkable success in combating coronavirus. President Tsai's New Southbound Policy has also helped reduce the island's previous overreliance on the mainland Chinese market. It is rather unfortunate that the German government seems to be unwilling to learn from Taiwan's successes in the field of pandemic mitigation and supply chain and market diversification.
Quo Vadis, Germany?
The guidelines are a stark reminder of the lack of a grand strategy in German foreign policy making. The document's long list of disparate activities does not add up to a coherent approach. The lack of strategic direction can primarily be explained by an absence of political leadership. Neither Chancellor Angela Merkel nor Foreign Minister Maas are ‘foreign policy entrepreneurs’ of the calibre of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Czech Senate Speaker Miloš Vystrčil, who only a few days ago successfully led a 90-member delegation to Taiwan. Pompeo has exercised thought leadership by raising global awareness about the threat that the CCP poses to open societies, whilst simultaneously making the case for deeper engagement with the Chinese people who he considers ‘completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party’. Vystrčil, on the other hand, has shown great civil courage by not only defying intimidation by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi but also by ignoring objections to his Taiwan visit by the Czech Republic's pro-Beijing president Miloš Zeman.
What transpires in the guidelines is a German government which still has not defined any red lines in terms of its China engagement. Authoritarian excesses of the Chinese Communist Party like the genocide against Uyghurs or the party's ‘legal Blitzkrieg’ against Hong Kong's democracy movement are neither discussed nor are sanctions considered. This shows that the current Merkel/Maas administration is unwilling to take any actions which may jeopardise their coveted EU–China investment treaty. Chancellor Merkel has made it clear that she will not seek a fifth term following Germany's next general election in Autumn 2021. This means that any substantive changes to Germany's foreign policy towards the Indo-Pacific will only occur after a reconfiguration of German domestic politics in the post-Merkel era.
Andreas Fulda is a Senior Fellow at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute and author of The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong: Sharp Power and Its Discontents (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Arno Mikkor