BERLIN - Germany dispatched a frigate to the Indo-Pacific region Monday for the first time in almost 20 years, a move that could put strain on Berlin's delicate relationship with Beijing.
The "Bayern" sailed from Wilhelmshaven harbor with more than 200 soldiers on board for a six-month mission to strengthen Germany's presence in the region that will take it to Singapore, South Korea, and Australia.
Crucially, it will also pass through the South China Sea, a flashpoint of tensions between China, its neighbors in the region and their western allies such as the United States.
"The message is clear: we are standing up for our values and interests together with our partners and allies," said Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer ahead of the ship's departure.
"For our partners in the Indo-Pacific, it is a reality that sea routes are no longer open and secure, and that claims to territory are being applied by the law of might is right," she added.
Yet Kramp-Karrenbauer insisted the mission was not directed against any particular country, and noted that Germany had offered to visit a Chinese harbor "in order to maintain dialogue".
The ship will also take part in the EU's Atalanta anti-piracy mission in East Africa and help monitor UN sanctions against North Korea.
"The Indo-Pacific is where the shape of the international order of the future will be decided. We want to help shape it and take responsibility for the rules-based international order," Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Sunday.
Beijing's actions in the South China Sea have long fueled tensions with the West, with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin emphasizing last week that China's claims have "no basis in international law".
China claims almost all of the resource-rich sea, through which trillions of dollars in shipping trade passes annually, and dismisses competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Germany, a key US ally, is usually reticent to take a military role on the international stage, and has often urged a less confrontational relationship with Beijing.
Yet Berlin's tone on China is changing, with an investment deal signed in 2020 since shelved, and new German government guidelines published in 2020 to strengthen ties with South-East Asian partners.
In March, the EU also sanctioned four Chinese officials over suspected human rights violations in China's far western region of Xinjiang.
But Europe's biggest economy's relationship with Beijing is also complicated by strong business ties to China.
Germany's biggest automaker Volkswagen operates in Xinjiang province, despite the mass incarceration of the Uyghur minority -- a campaign that Washington describes as genocide.