Indo-Pacific: Europe’s geopolitical ghost ride

Uwe Hoering, April 2021, updated April 24, 2021

It may sound like a matter of routine: In the summer of this year, the German frigate Bayern is about to set sail and spend several months cruising in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific.  The Defense Ministry merely wants to see this as a “signal”: Where Germany’s “values and interests are at stake”, its flag is to be shown. However, behind this there is a fundamental restructuring of security policy, in other words, a paradigm shift. Europe seeks to “learn the language of power,” as former Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen called for in the summer of 2019. And it is a provocation that was immediately answered by Beijing: The pro-government Global Times writes sardonically, “if they can come to the South China Sea, we can also go to the Mediterranean”.

“If they can come to the South China Sea, we can also go to the Mediterranean”. Global Times

The Bayern is not all alone: British, French and Dutch naval vessels are also stepping up their presence in the Indo-Pacific in the name of “freedom of navigation.” The mighty U.S. Pacific fleet has been engaged in this FONOP-operation for quite some time, engaging in turf wars with the Chinese navy, as it did again at the beginning of April. Chinese and U.S. military circles both call this “pure routine”. But the deployment of the German Navy is more than just a “sign of solidarity,” as current Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer pretends: The German government is siding with the confrontational U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific.

Note: This is an extended and updated version of the blog post “Militarization: Adventure Trip to the Pacific”, posted March 2021, and has been first published in German in “Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik” (forthcoming).

Update: April 24, 2021

After lengthy deliberations, on April 19 the EU presented a 10-page outline for an ‘EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’. In response to threats to “stability and security” in the region that would directly affect the EU’s “interests and values”, Europe’s capability as a “global actor” are to be enhanced. Under the heading of “security and defense,” a greater maritime presence is announced to support “freedom of navigation” and to secure trade routes against possible interruptions. A comprehensive strategy is now to be drawn up and presented by September.

The conflict with China is not explicitly mentioned, instead the readiness for “cooperation” is emphasized. But the language is consistent with the mission of the U.S.-led Freedom of Navigation Operation, or FONOP. Moreover, the expansion of the operational area of CRIMARIO (Critical Maritime Routes in the Indian Ocean), which also comes under the catchword of ”securing important sea lanes,” is a side blow. Initially part of the EU’s Atalanta mission against piracy off the coast of East Africa, CRIMARIO II is to be extended to Southeast Asia in the future. But who are the pirates that will be targeted in the Indo-Pacific?

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