Within days of Germany’s decision to unveil its Indo-Pacific strategy — a development that could lead to a potent collective response by the world’s democracies to counter Beijing’s muscle flexing along vital shipping lanes — Beijing has hit back at Berlin with a move that would hurt German farmers.
On September 12, China announced that it would ban import of German pork, citing it as preventive step to stop the spread of the deadly swine fever.
In doing so, China has badly hit German farmers, a politically sensitive constituency for German Chancellor Angel Merkel, by denying them a hefty $1.2 billion in exports. Germany is major exporter of pork, meeting 14 per cent of China’s import demand of the meat.
China’s angry riposte follows Germany’s bold decision to pivot towards the Indo-Pacific. Germany became the second European heavyweight, following the lead taken by France, to flag its intent to shape the Indo-Pacific, and prevent the shipping lanes on either side of the Malacca straits to be dominated by China.
China is throwing its weight in the resource rich South China Sea, by building and militarizing artificial islands, and spatting with smaller Southeast Asian neighbors. It is also marking a formidable presence in the Indian Ocean — a super highway in the high seas, frequented by all varieties of trading ships, oil super-tankers, warships and submarines, as well as speedboats and trawlers, operated by the pirates.
China has already established a naval base in Djibouti, on the mouth of the Gulf of Aden — the gateway to the Red Sea in the Indian Ocean, and on the shipping route to Europe via the Suez Canal. It is also operating the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, which is close to vital shipping lanes.
Besides, China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), a state-owned heavyweight is operating the Pakistani port of Gwadar, the starting point of the strategic China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which provides Beijing, which has a long coastline in the Pacific, with a secure opening to the waters of the Indian Ocean. China is also developing Myanmar’s Kyaukphyu deep water port, where oil tankers can unload, without passing through the strait of Malacca further to the East, which the American dominate. All these projects fall under the umbrella of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a China-centric trans-continental connectivity enterprise, meant to anchor China’s rise as an unrivalled great power.
More than 150 ships transit through the Malacca straits which links the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. The tropical waterway is flanked by Malaysia and Indonesia’s island of Sumatra.<img class="wp-image-13552 size-large" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/ac79d301b19327f530ae33e96e68a166-1024×683.jpg" alt="" width="1024" height="683" /> German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech during a plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, in July (European Union/Handout via Xinhua/IANS)
On September 2, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas announced his country’s rotation in the direction of Indo-Pacific, which comprises countries on either side of the Malacca straits.
A 40 page policy guideline released on September 2, says Germany wants to “promote a European Indo-Pacific strategy” where it makes “an active contribution to shaping the international order in the Indo-Pacific.” Germany would therefore not only pivot towards the Indo-Pacific alone, but would be engaged in spurring a pan-European strategic shift towards the region.
The European powerhouse spotlighted that it “wants to work more intensively with the countries of the (Indo-Pacific) region, be it to strengthen the rule of law and human rights” and that the “security-policy sector plays a special role in this context.” The emphasis on human rights is significant, as Germany has factored China’s suppression of ethnic Uyghur community in its policy shift.
The shift in Germany’s geopolitical disposition comes at a time when fear of economic dependence on China, after the Covid-19 pandemic, is overriding Beijing’s allure as a massive market for German goods and services.
Germany’s perceptible shift in position, follows its realization that the rising Indo-Pacific region is central to its sustained economic prosperity. In 2016, Germany, a major manufacturing superpower exported massive $ 117 billion in merchandise which passed through the contested waters of the South China Sea. Not surprisingly, Berlin has considered joining US warships which have been periodically carrying out Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea.
“Our prosperity and our geopolitical influence in the coming decades will depend on how we work together with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region,” Maas observed during his address. “That, more than anywhere else, is where the shape of the international rules-based order of tomorrow will be decided. We want to help shape that order so that it is based on rules and international cooperation, not on the law of the strong,” he added.
Germany’s geopolitical realignment is expected to provide a psychological boost to the Indo-Pacific Quad — a dynamic security forum, which is rapidly evolving in response to Chinese creeping expansionism under its ultra-ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India, the United States, Japan and Australia are the core members of the Quad. But, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Quad expanded into Quad+, including New Zealand, Israel, South Korea and Vietnam as additional members to fight the disease. The experience opens the tantalizing possibility of more countries joining the Quad core, in view of the rising threat from China.
In bolstering the European leg of the Indo-Pacific strategy, it is likely that a Franco-German partnership will play a key role. The Franco-German alliance, where France takes the lead in security and Germany does the economic heavy lifting, avoiding a security high profile for historical reasons, has been a prominent feature of the Paris-Bonn relationship after World War II.
By working lock-step with France, Germany would be in a good position to benefit from the French presence in its overseas territories of La Reunion and Mayotte in the Southwest Indian Ocean. France also maintains two inter-services bases located in Djibouti and in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
It is expected that Germany Indo-Pacific policy will be shaped by its Gestaltungsmächte doctrine, which focuses on a deeper engagement of the “shaping powers” of the region, which include, India, Australia and Japan.
In developing its Indo-Pacific strategy, it is likely that Germany, and the rest of the European Union has already factored in a geo-economic blowback from China. Predictably, the Chinese would try and activate the captains of German industry to persuade Berlin not to embark on a fundamental policy shift towards the Indo-Pacific, by restricting market access, especially in areas such as high-end motor vehicles, exported by luxury icons such as Mercedes and BMW.
But that is unlikely to stop Germany or the rest of Europe in their Indo-Pacific tracks. “China's leaders may assume that the EU's enormous economic interests in China will be enough to ensure its neutrality. But they should think twice, because an important lesson from the US-China decoupling is that, when forced to choose, capitalist democracies will put security and ideological values above profits. It will take more than the lure of China's enormous market to keep European democracies on the fence,” Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, correctly observes in an opinion piece in the Nikkei Asian Review..