Beijing says it will not consider a port call request from a German warship to stop at Shanghai until Berlin clarifies its intentions in sending the frigate through the South China Sea.
The warship Bayern began its mission to the Indo-Pacific region on Monday and plans to cross the South China Sea – a flashpoint between China and the US and its allies – on its return journey in December. It will be the first German warship to do so since 2002, but will not pass within 12 nautical miles of any land in the disputed region.
The mission started in Angela Merkel’s last days as German chancellor. Under her leadership, Germany has become increasingly vocal over China’s claims in the South China Sea as well as its human rights record.
In anticipation of her departure, German political leaders are crafting a new China policy on the hoof. Despite its status as a major trading partner, some view Merkel’s stance as out of step with German society, where concerns have been growing about an increasingly strident China.
The Bayern’s route includes Australia, Guam, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, according to a German defence ministry spokesman, who said it was not possible to give an exact date for its passage through the South China Sea several months in advance.
The spokesman reiterated comments by German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer that the offer of a visit to Shanghai by the Bayern was “in order to maintain dialogue”.
China’s foreign ministry confirmed the port visit request from Berlin, which was first reported by Chatham House, a London-based independent policy institute.
“The German side has made requests to the Chinese side to arrange for its warship to visit Shanghai through multiple channels,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said.
“But regarding this warship operation, the information released by the German side before and after is too confusing. China will make a decision after the German side has fully clarified the relevant intentions.”
The spokesperson said China hoped warships would “earnestly abide by international law” during their voyages in the South China Sea, while respecting the sovereignty and rights and interests of coastal countries, and “refrain from doing things that harm regional peace and stability”.
There has been a stark increase in Western military activity in the disputed waterway – which is claimed by a number of countries, including China – with the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its strike group currently in the South China Sea for freedom of navigation exercises and a series of military drills with a number of other countries in the region.
A French submarine patrol occurred in February and the US has stepped up its presence in the disputed waters in recent months.
Chinese experts said Berlin was showing its commitment to the US in applying pressure to China with its presence in the Indo-Pacific region, while trying not to intimidate Beijing – first by its decision not to enter the 12 nautical mile limit, and then with its request for a port visit.
Sun Keqin, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said the Bayern’s deployment would be an important step towards Germany’s implementation of its Indo-Pacific guidelines, approved last year, to increase its engagement in the region.
“The voyage to the South China Sea is a strategic move in cooperating with the US to pressure China. Germany still regards China as a cooperative partner on the whole, and cooperation is the main aspect, ” Sun said, adding that Germany was reluctant to get too rigid in relations with China, its largest trading partner.
Berlin’s decision to steer its frigate 12 nautical miles clear of features in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing was a sign that Germany did not want to upset China too much, Sun said. “It is also a balanced diplomatic posture. asking permission to visit the Shanghai port.”
Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, said sending the frigate was a big step for German foreign policy and an important signal that Germany cared about international law and freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific region, working closely with like-minded partners in the region.
“That Germany [would] send this frigate under Merkel’s watch is a small miracle and a big achievement for defence minister Kramp-Karrenbauer, who very much pushed for this,” Benner said.
According to Benner, the German port call request to Shanghai was part of a compromise to win support for the mission from Merkel and Rolf Mutzenich, leader of the opposition SPD parliamentary group. Both were sceptical about the deployment for fear of antagonising Beijing.
Benner said Beijing’s refusal to allow the Shanghai port call to go ahead would be “the best possible outcome” for Kramp-Karrenbauer and others who have pushed for the deployment – “giving them an opportunity to express concerns over Beijing’s hegemonic aspirations in the region and its disregard for international law”.
“They wouldn’t shed any tears about the Bayern not being able to visit Shanghai,” he said.