Only a few years ago, many observers of international relations would have thought of Germany as a peace-loving, if not pacifist, country. Whenever an international conflict demanded swift action, Germany was quick to reject the military option. If it did agree to a military operation, Berlin would ask to have its troops deployed far away from the action. Now, Germany has recently confirmed that it will soon send a warship into the hot zone that is the Indo-Pacific.
This planned deployment demonstrates a growing realism in Germany. As I have written before, Germany is becoming more realist in its foreign policy and less Wilsonian. The main catalyst has been the steadily decreasing U.S. interest in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Being on the receiving end of U.S. sanctions and tariff threats has made Germans more aware of the true anarchic nature of international relations, for example, after the unravelling of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or in the ongoing confrontation over Nord Stream 2.
It would be wrong to regard the German Indo-Pacific initiative purely as part of a larger European effort. True, France was the first E.U. country to release a strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, French President Emmanuel Macron has been pressing Berlin for some time now to support his plans to transform the European Union into a great power. Nevertheless, Germany has had its own realist epiphany, at least partly thanks to Donald Trump. The country’s move into the Indo-Pacific is not a mere product of reluctantly caving to French pressure. It follows clear interests that Germany, as a sovereign nation, has developed over the last decade.
What is “realist” about sending one measly frigate into the vastness of the Indo-Pacific? The move is only one element of the refreshingly realist strategy contained in Germany’s Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific (Leitlinien der Bundesregierung zum Indo-Pazifik) that the German government released last year. The document unapologetically defines German interests in the region. As opposed to moral considerations that are the foundation of Wilsonianism, the new German realism exhibited here focuses on interests such as security and the integrity of the nation. Compared to previous white books and national defense guidelines, these guidelines are filled to the brim with realist interests.
The magnitude of this ongoing shift from Wilsonianism to realism cannot be overstated. Only 10 years ago, then-President Horst Köhler stepped down after being lambasted by the German media for insinuating that there could be a connection between German military operations abroad and the protection of open seaways or other economic interests. Trump‘s lessons about the realities of international relations have certainly sunk in.
German Indo-Pacific Goals
German interests in the Indo-Pacific are two-fold: securing German economic interests in the region and keeping the United States engaged in NATO. The first goal is plainly outlined in the German Indo-Pacific strategy and requires having a say in shaping the future of this crucial region. The Indo-Pacific contains over 4 billion customers, indispensable production lines, highly sought-after natural resources, generation-defining technological advances, and several of the most important shipping and trade routes, making it crucial for German interests. If Germany wants to maintain its level of wealth and prevent economic decline, the Indo-Pacific is the place to be.
China is also an important factor in Germany pursuing its interests. China as the “world’s factory” as well as one of the most promising markets, it is also the second-most powerful country in the world. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has recently become the largest navy in the world and China is adopting an increasingly coercive foreign policy. China has built several artificial islands to use as military bases in the South China Sea, drawn a nine-dash line on the map of that sea, disrespected the ruling of international courts, expanded its influence with its enormous Belt and Road Initiative, and steadily increased its military spending. China is changing the balance of power in the region and beyond.
Germany’s interests with regard to China have so far been primarily economic. German business elites have pushed for more opportunities to invest in and trade with China. At the same time, however, China has aggressively expanded its reach within Europe with its Belt and Road Initiative and has even managed to create divisions within the European Union at times. The integrity of the European Union and its independence from foreign influence is very important for Berlin. Keeping China in check is therefore competing with Germany’s economic interests.
Germany also has an interest in keeping the United States from turning tensions with China into the next Cold War. As German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas puts it in the forward to the new guidelines, “A new bipolarity with fresh dividing lines across the Indo-Pacific would undermine [our] interests.” Given that China draws its strength from its impressive economic growth, any successful attempt at containing China’s ambitions ought to include an effective economic component. The ramifications for global trade and production would be significant, as the former U.S. administration’s comparatively small-scale attempt at tariff diplomacy already illustrated. Consequently, multilateralism and initiatives to strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other regional balancing instruments are prominently featured in the German guidelines.
The second goal of the German move to the Indo-Pacific has to do with national security. Trump was neither the first nor the last president to threaten to decrease U.S. security commitments to the Old World if European countries, and especially Germany, do not do more for their own defense. After COVID-19 crushed the previously well-balanced German budget, and given the country’s declining yet still strong pacifist culture, it is highly unlikely the defense budget will reach the promised numbers any time soon.
The new German strategy to maintain American military support seems to finally follow Sen. Richard Lugar’s advice: Either NATO goes out of area or it goes out of business. NATO has not yet fully engaged in the South China Sea, but with one of its militarily most reluctant members sending a warship there, it might be a viable option for the future. Even if NATO does not become the “North Atlantic and Indo-Pacific Treaty Organization,” a European presence in the vicinity of America’s new rival might persuade Washington that Europe still holds strategic value for the United States. The U.S. State Department has already applauded the German initiative.
Obviously, Germany’s two goals collide somewhat. Germany cannot hope to both impress Washington and not antagonize Beijing in the Indo-Pacific. When looking closer, however, Germany’s interest in having a say in the region does not necessarily require such neutrality. It only requires making itself relevant to the great power that shapes the region, which is still the United States.
Foreseeably, Germany will side with the United States in the Indo-Pacific. Of course, the German guidelines are careful to mask this inevitability: “No country should — as in the time of the Cold War — be forced to choose between two sides or fall into a state of unilateral dependency.” However, if China were to, say, aggressively try to change the balance in the region in its favor, Germany, by design of its Indo-Pacific policy guidelines, would have to side with the United States and its allies for the sake of multilateralism and the rules-based international order.
This makes the new German realism shine even brighter. The country not only released an unapologetic list of its interests in the Indo-Pacific, but it also made provisions to side with the dominant power and prepared an explanation blaming it on the contender. The reasoning is clear. Either China restrains itself and sticks to the rules — rules that have clearly benefitted Germany so far — or Germany will have to support the United States in containing Chinese aggression. The latter scenario might be costly, given that German companies are heavily invested in China and China is one of Germany’s major trading partners. However, China lacks allies, has a huge demographic problem, is still trailing the United States in many areas, and is consequently not likely to win in a confrontation in the near future. It makes sense for a realist middle power to set itself up as Germany has.
Germany is doing the United States a favor that is far larger than what one frigate could symbolize. By getting involved in the region and siding with the United States, Germany has allowed U.S. threats to economically contain China to become real. Prior to Germany’s release of its strategy document, such threats were not credible, as Lisa Picheny and I have argued previously. In the past, Europeans and Germans specifically have acted contrary to American interests vis-à-vis China when they stood to benefit. Now, with a military presence in the region, ignoring Chinese aggression while profiting economically just became harder. Moreover, Germany is not only sending a frigate to the Indo-Pacific. It is sending the might of its economy to aid the United States in containing China.
Recent proposed changes to the German frigate’s planned itinerary may cast some doubts on the German Indo-Pacific strategy. The German government is apparently contemplating cancelling a joint exercise with a European naval group that will be in the Indo-Pacific at the same time. Moreover, a goodwill port visit to Shanghai is being discussed. In light of the upcoming elections that will determine Angela Merkel’s successor, and given the still-important Wilsonian sentiment among the German public, these proposed changes could be an indication that some politicians think it wise to dial down on their newfound realism. But even if they occur, such minor changes to the frigate’s deployment cannot change the deep realist foundations engrained in the German Indo-Pacific guidelines. Neither can it change the forces that have made Germany acknowledge the anarchic reality of international relations.
How does the German Indo-Pacific strategy tie in with the larger European picture? All three E.U. member countries that have published official documents on the Indo-Pacific — France, Germany, and the Netherlands — share similar interests in the region. France, seeing itself as a resident power in the region, has probably the most ambitious outlook. All three, however, favor the current rules-based, (i.e., U.S.-led) system, which makes them natural U.S. allies despite their aversion to a bipolar order. Joining their forces in a single E.U. strategy makes sense under these conditions. However, it remains to be seen whether that will come to fruition. Until then, these three E.U. countries will cooperatively, yet separately, pursue their interests.
Some argue that this deployment was planned only to placate the United States in the debate over defense spending, but such opinions are myopic. China is competing for regional, and potentially world, dominance with the great power that has guaranteed German prosperity since 1949. Given not only the increasingly realist rhetoric but also various actions such as the publication of the Indo-Pacific guidelines, it seems there is a newfound awareness of the anarchic nature of international relations in the German government. Others are afraid that Germany is unnecessarily provoking China. Given China’s clear and undeniable ambitions, a conflict between China and America is bound to take place in one form or another. It is certainly better to position Germany in relation to this conflict now, while there is still time to shape the form of that conflict into something more beneficial to Germany.
Given Germany’s long tradition of pacifist restraint and Wilsonian moralism, it is remarkable how fast the shift to a more realistic world view is happening. The shift is not yet complete: The guidelines still contain much that is Wilsonian. However, considering that only a few years ago such a document would have been political suicide, its very existence is remarkable. What is more, it positions Germany well in the great-power confrontation to come. If there is one thing to learn from the new policy guidelines, it is that there is no longer a pacific Germany but there is a Pacific Germany.
Dominik Wullers is a former army officer of the Bundeswehr. Currently, he serves as a civilian administrator in the Bundeswehr’s defense acquisition division. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from Helmut-Schmidt-University and a M.P.A. from Harvard Kennedy School.