Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Frigate Bayern in the Pacific: The Return of German Gunboat Diplomacy?

By Moritz Brake and Sebastian Bruns

The German government recently announced the deployment of the frigate Bayern to the South China Sea. With this deployment, Berlin is aiming to send a strong signal to its European and American allies. However, it is one that comes with an exit strategy of a kind that is unique to the use of naval forces. On one hand, Germany wants to be seen as standing up against unilateral Chinese appropriation of international waters. On the other hand, China’s potential counterreactions need to be closely monitored and dangerous escalation avoided, especially in light of China’s current conventional and nuclear capabilities, and Germany’s economic dependence on the Middle Kingdom.

Enter the Bayern. The deployment of a warship to the region, the level of visibility of which can be adjusted depending on the actions and reactions of the powers at be, allows Germany to achieve a delicate balance between cooperation and conflict with China. Therefore, what is described in the latest Chatham House commentary as an “unclear message” is precisely the point of this mission under the given circumstances: the deployment of the Bayern preserves room for maneuver at the appropriate time, as the situation unfolds on the scene.1 After all, blunt ‘sticks’ or empty ‘soft words’ are hardly sufficient to deal with such a complex situation.

Since September 2020 at the latest, when the German government published its Indo-Pacific Guidelines,2 there have been concrete plans to deploy a German warship to the region. Germany has only 10 of these ships of various classes, and given many other operational commitments, they are a scarce commodity. Even if a single frigate may seem a modest contribution when compared to a single British or several American aircraft carriers in the region, it is not insignificant. If one also takes into account what the deployment means in the context of previous German naval contributions and the domestic political debate, the mission of the Bayern is remarkable.

Following the announcement, the term “gunboat diplomacy” made its rounds once again in the German public, as is so often the case when it comes to new naval deployments. A bit of folklore is simply part of the security policy debate in Germany. However, in view of the Strait of Hormuz discussion,3 which faded out of public view somewhere between the EU Commission and the German Chancellery, as well as the recent capers of the SPD parliamentary group on drone procurement in the Bundeswehr, it is important not to forget how quickly ideological hobbyhorses can be harnessed to the cart of domestic political power games.

In this context, political messages sent internally and externally are crucial to the value of the mission of the Bayern. This kind of communication is in the DNA of every navy. After all, their very existence is intended to send messages to friends, neighbors, and potential rivals, ranging from the ability to act in cooperation or in belligerence. Modern navies like the German Navy also demonstrate through such deployments that they are capable of generating political and strategic effects in a broader spectrum of activities with global reach. These include deployments and mission-equivalent commitments as well as port visits, maneuvers, engagement in international alliances, or personnel and technical exchanges with other states.4

From the foreign policy dilemma alone, whose pitfalls Germany wants to avoid in the process, it is clear: this is not about gunboat diplomacy. Anything that could be remotely described as a combat mission is clearly not up for discussion during this Indo-Pacific cruise. Rather, it is about combining the protection of the rules-based order, free sea lanes, and multilateralism, with the simultaneous maintenance of vigilant cooperation with China.This “squaring of the circle” could also be described as a maritime attempt at an Asian variant of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik—the careful navigation between Western unity in resistance in the face of aggressive Chinese foreign policy, and the “outstretched hand” in the omnipresent awareness of Brandt’s dictum: “Peace is not everything, but everything is naught without peace.”6

Therefore, the mere fact that Germany, which otherwise acts very cautiously towards China, is sending a ship at all is a surprisingly clear signal. Moreover, the choice of the ship to be sent is relevant. Frigates are the most combat capable warship that the German Navy can deploy. While a single frigate cannot and will not pose a military threat to China, Germany is visibly expressing its message and interests through its deployment.

Last but not least, the deployment of the Bayern is also remarkable on a deeper level. Given the difficulties with deploying armed forces in the service of a dynamic foreign policy, which Germany had in its own unique way after the end of the Cold War, it was hardly surprising that the special diplomatic value of the navy was slowly recognized. Beginning in the 1990s, a process of development ensued that encompassed not only the public and politics, but also the navy. Ultimately, however, the navy itself had to develop a coherent concept of its own diplomatic impact in order to function as a “diplomatic influencer”:7 an advisor to policy at home and an ambassador abroad.

A Play with Undertones, Nuances, and Subtle Harmonies

The long voyage from Wilhelmshaven to the Pacific will bring Bayern into contact with numerous security problems and lines of conflict that preoccupy Berlin’s foreign and security policy. These are also closely observed in the capitals of EU partners and NATO allies. Competition between states is a constant feature in modern history. In the 21st century, however, it is no longer limited to one domain—maritime, land, or air. The maritime domain is contested and the dominant vector for global power projection. Still, it also offers its own valuable approaches to the peaceful containment and resolution of conflicts. At the same time, the impact of warships is by no means exhausted by the things they can influence through the use of force. 

Like a jazz musician acknowledging with a nod the tunes of the past still lingering in the air, the voyage of the Bayern appears to cite hidden notes of Germany’s foreign policy evolution over the past thirty years. In the Mediterranean, she joins NATO’s maritime security mission “Sea Guardian”—the mission carried out by the NATO standing naval group from which Germany once joined one of its first crisis response missions after the Cold War—“Sharp Guard” in the Adriatic in 1993—coincidentally commenced by another Bayern—the old 1960s destroyer of the same name.

Former West German destroyer Bayern, in service from 1965-1993. (Photo credit: Bundeswehr)

Next, at the entrance to the Indian Ocean, the Bayern is to join the EU’s counter-piracy operation “Atalanta.” The naval deployment is part of a broader networked approach to the long-standing crisis in Somalia. However, this is also the first EU-led naval mission, one in which Germany has been significantly involved from the beginning. Furthermore, it was at the Horn of Africa that the German Navy finally left behind old Cold War reservations for so-called “out-of-area”-deployments. It successfully evacuated the Bundeswehr’s first armed peacekeepers in 1994 and later came to participate in the War on Terror with the largest fleet that ever sailed from a German port after the World Wars. In 2002, this latter mission was even spearheaded and led by the very Bayern which is now bound to sail these waters again.

On Somalia’s opposite coast, in Yemen, a civil war and proxy conflict is raging between the Arab regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran. Mines, naval blockades, attacks with guided weapons and drones on sea targets, as well as the prospect of a huge oil catastrophe determine the maritime situation there.8 More than just a critical hot-spot in its own right, the major players of the multipolar world of our time are meeting at the Horn of Africa. China maintains a base in Djibouti and from there supports not only its maritime operations but also foreign policy in Africa. Russia recently announced the construction of a naval base in Sudan. The United States patrols the region with its 5th Fleet, while both the EU and NATO maintain continuous presence at sea. It is here that China’s strongest economic branch of its foreign policy strategy meets the economic lifelines of Europe: “The Maritime Silk Road” connects to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.

Indeed, twenty years of maritime security operations at the low end of the spectrum have long concealed the escalation potential of great power competition in the region. On top of this, with Pakistan and India, two nuclear powers lie on the northern rim of the Indian Ocean, bound together in deep antipathy and at the same time readjusting their alliances.

After the Horn of Africa, the Bayern’s course should then continue towards the strategically important Strait of Malacca, which is another important site of recent German naval history. When a devastating tsunami struck on 25 December 2004, the German combat-supply-vessel Berlin was at once dispatched in a rapidly concerted humanitarian aid effort. Alongside European and American allies, it provided urgent, sea-based aid to Indonesia. The Malacca Strait is one of the world’s strategic maritime chokepoints, a natural bottleneck for all maritime traffic between East Asia and Africa, and the Arab world and Europe. Its control, for better or for worse, is crucial for the security of maritime connections and the entire region. It is also here that the strategic rivalry between India and China meets: India controls the western access to this important lifeline of the Chinese economy via the Andaman and Nicobar island groups.

In the further course of the symbol-laden route along visible signs of Germany’s multilateral foreign policy, the Bayern then joins the United Nations’ maritime embargo of North Korea. The Korean conflict has preoccupied security policy-makers for seven decades now, and it once was the tipping point in the Cold War that led to German post-war rearmament and the establishment of the Bundeswehr. With nuclear weapons in the north, it has also become dangerously explosive in recent years. Therefore in addition to revisiting its post-Cold War history, with just one voyage, the Federal Republic of Germany aims to demonstrate its commitment to the three cornerstones of its multilateral foreign policy: NATO in the Mediterranean, the EU at the Horn of Africa, and the UN off the Korean peninsula.

In the Western Pacific, the most delicate task awaits the Bayern and Berlin’s foreign policy: the South China Sea. Much of this sea area is claimed by the People’s Republic of China in violation of international law. With the help of dubious interpretations of “historical” documents, but even more with faits accompli, built-up reefs turned into artificial islands with large military bases, China wants to expand its sphere of influence. An aggressive policy against its neighboring littoral states complements the quest for sea control to overcome the dilemma of Chinese geography. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has ruled that these measures are illegal. China, in turn, does not appear to feel bound by this ruling and international law. The presence of the US Navy, in particular in the South China Sea, is intended to strengthen freedom of the sea and prevent a customary expansion of Beijing’s sphere of power.

Depending on how the messages of the deployment are taken by its various audiences, and how the general foreign policy climate with China develops, it is not impossible that a Chinese port could also be visited. However, in view of the interaction between political and economic interests, all of Berlin’s partners will be watching closely to see what signals the Federal Republic of Germany sends to China. In any case, it can be assumed that port visits will be scheduled. But unless the Corona pandemic is overcome, visits could even be seen as a danger by the local population. An interesting side trip would be a visit to Vladivostok in Russia. As is well known, Russia shares a border with North Korea, and the large naval base on the Pacific could, subject to a diplomatic reconciliation of interests, be a destination that picks up threads of German-Russian talks beyond current tensions in Europe.

In all of this, however, it is important that Germany does not go it alone. Just as the itinerary clearly symbolizes multilateralism and a rules-based order, in the most difficult part of the mission—i.e. getting Europe’s message across to China—it is of the utmost importance for Germany not to undermine a common united front with its allies. This should also be symbolically demonstrated, wherever possible, in the joint appearance of European and American warships. If this is the return of German gunboat diplomacy, close coordination, joint maneuvers, and port visits with the French, British, and American ships are just as important as open communication with Beijing.

Moritz Brake is a Kapitänleutnant in the German Navy, doctoral student at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and member of the German Maritime Institute (DMI). He is also a guest lecturer for “Maritime Security and Strategy” at the University of Bonn.

Dr. Sebastian Bruns is a naval strategist based in Kiel. He headed the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security (CMSS) at the Institute for Security Policy Kiel University (ISPK) from 2016 to 2021. He will join the US Naval Academy in Annapolis (Maryland) as the Fulbright-McCain Scholar-in-Residence this August.   


[1] Kundnani, Hans and Tusuoka, Michito, “Germany’s Indo-Pacific frigate may send unclear message,” Chatham House, 04.05.2021, via:

[2] “Germany – Europe – Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together”: Federal Government adopts Indo-Pacific Guidelines. 01.09.2020,

[3] The joint deployment of European warships in response to an Iranian attack on a British merchant ship in the Strait of Hormuz in July 2019.

[4] See Paul Chamberlain, “The Royal Canadian Navy and Naval Diplomacy,” Niobe Papers No. 14. Naval Association of Canada/Association Navale Du Canada, March 2021, p. 1.


[6] Swistek, Goran, “Squaring the Circle in the Indo-Pacific,” SWP News 2021/A 29, March 2021, via:

[7] Chamberlain, “The Royal Canadian Navy,” p. 1.

[8] Hamann, Sebastian. “Old threats in new guise: the maritime threat from Huthi rebels in the Red Sea.” SIRIUS – Journal of Strategic Analysis, vol. 3, no. 2, 2019, pp. 178-183.

Featured image: Brandenburg-class frigate Bayern deployed in support Operation Enduring Freedom. (Credit: Bundeswehr)

Countering China’s Maritime Insurgency with Coast Guard Deployable Specialized Forces

By Lawrence Hajek

Losing the green water sea control challenge in the South China Sea could sideline US-led efforts in Asia. The US Coast Guard’s Deployable Specialized Forces can step up to provide strategic support for INDOPAC command.

As tensions continue to build between the United States and the People’s Republic of China/Chinese Communist Party (PRC/CCP); the United States finds itself increasing blue water naval activities in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, and Indo-Pacific. Often-publicized Freedom of Navigation Patrols, or FONOPS, are just one of the many tools available to ensure the rule of law at sea is maintained to counter the aggressive insurgency tactics of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard (CCG), and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia in the South China Sea. China’s aggressive actions directly affect the maritime security of neighboring nations, who struggle to retain control of their sovereign Exclusive Economic Zones. 

Hunter Stires, a fellow with the John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research at the U.S. Naval War College, describes this maritime insurgency as 

“a campaign to undermine and ultimately overturn the prevailing regime of international law that governs the conduct of maritime activity in the South China Sea. The key dynamic at work is a ‘battle of legal regimes,’ a political contest of wills that manifests itself in a duel between two competing systems of authority—the U.S.-underwritten system of the free sea, versus the Chinese vision of a closed, Sinocentric, and unfree sea.” 

This PRC/CCP maritime insurgency is focused on two key items within the South China Sea; firstly is enforcing unlawful maritime claims and developments of reefs and island territories and second is the use of those claimed territories as logistical launching point for the exploitation of South China Sea nations through aggressive tactics, unregulated exploitation of natural resources, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing

This type of maritime insurgency is rooted in what Christian Bueger and Timothy Edmunds describes as ‘Blue Crime’: 

“…distinguished by its particular relationship with the sea and the objects of harm that require protection. These include first, crimes against mobility; second, criminal flows; and third, environmental crimes. Crimes in the first category target various forms of circulation on the sea, particularly shipping, supply chains and maritime trade. In the second category, the sea is used as a conduit for criminal activities, in particular smuggling. In the third category, crimes inflict harm on the sea itself and the resources it provides.” 

Maritime insurgency plays into the CCP’s larger strategic goal for the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) adopted by Beijing in 2013, an ambitious bid to put China at the center of global trading routes. Dominance and control of the South China Sea is simply a milestone in the overall strategy. This year alone, the CCP has made headlines by passing into law the authority for the CCG to fire upon foreign vessels and destroy foreign infrastructure built on reefs claimed by the CCP.

As of 2016 $3.37 in trade passes through the region annually, further highlighting global dependence on the safe shipment of these goods to and from their intended ports. A major disruption in these transit routes would cripple America’s allies in northeast Asia, as they rely heavily on the flow of oil and commerce through South China Sea shipping lanes, including more than 80 percent of the crude oil to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. 

The PRC/CCP’s use of the PLAN, CCG, and militarized fishing fleet to wage a ‘Blue Crime’ maritime insurgency within the ”green-water” of the South China Sea degrades maritime security and the overall stability of South China Sea nations. This increases these countries’ susceptibility to the PRC’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) by way of coercion or persuasion

To counter this Blue Crime maritime insurgency, the United States must position itself between the CCP and the South China Sea nations by establishing a Maritime Counterinsurgency (M-COIN). This type of counterinsurgency requires nimble means that disrupt the CCP’s intentions without firing a shot (for the purposes of this article, “without a shot” refers to avoiding open naval combat). 

A perfect candidate to execute a low-profile/low-kinetic M-COIN strategy is the US Coast Guard’s Deployable Specialized Forces (DSF). The DSFs comprise seven various sub-capabilities but the ideal capabilities for M-COIN are the Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT) and Tactical Law Enforcement Teams (TACLET).  Furthermore, the MSRT includes two critical components: the Tactical Delivery Teams (TDT) and Direct Action Section (DAS), which can be either pre-positioned within a theatre of operation or rapidly deployed for higher risk operations. The TACLETs are comprised of smaller teams called Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDET), which carry out drug interdiction, maritime intercept operations (MIO), and security force assistance/foreign internal defense missions. Both MSRTs and TACLETs have carried out a mix of well-executed joint operations with DoD counterparts to combat smuggling of drugs, weapons, money, and humans worldwide. 

OFF THE COAST OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (July 6, 2018) U.S. Coast Guard deployable specialized forces (DSF) assigned to Maritime Security Response Team – West (MSRT-W) and Royal Canadian Navy explosive ordnance disposal technicians assigned to Fleet Diving Unit Pacific conduct maritime interdiction operations training in support of counter-improvised explosive device and mine warfare operations as part of Commander Task Force 177 during the force integration phase of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Southern California (SOCAL) exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Matthew A. Stroup/Released)

The counter-drug mission is a joint operation led by the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) which coordinates DoD, Intelligence, and USCG assets to interdict vessels suspected of illicit maritime trafficking. The United States can use JIATF-South’s Pacific counterpart, JIATF-West to oversee a Maritime-Counter Insurgency (M-COIN) mission by way of a coordinated US Navy 7th Fleet task force to support its activities. USCG DSF forces are uniquely suited for the M-COIN mission as their capabilities are purpose built to fight ‘Blue Crime’ and ensure maritime security. With the inherent ability to carry out law enforcement actions, support special operations, and provide intelligence collection, the DSF is the right choice to lead the strategic green-water sea control campaign in the South China Sea and broader INDO-PAC region. 

This campaign would require three key factors to effectively counter the PRC/CCP insurgency, counter aggression in the South China Sea, and disrupt the People’s Liberation Army’s expeditionary goals. The first is expanded Indo-Pacific partnerships and alliances, next is the proper employment of USCG DSF teams, and lastly is the choice of cost-effective naval platforms to support the mission. 

Through this strategy, the United States can counter the PRC’s aggressive insurgent tactics while still maintaining a low profile and reducing the odds of a kinetic naval engagement. Successfully carrying out a USCG DSF-led M-COIN operation against PRC/CCP maritime aggressions would turn the tide against further PRC expansion in the South China Sea. 

The United States National Defense Strategy outlines the need to expand America’s Indo-Pacific partnerships and alliances. Cooperation and coordination with South China Sea and Indo-Pacific nation partners will ensure maritime security, maintain the rule of law at sea, and ensure that the region is not susceptible to PRC/CCP influence and control. 

The South China Sea nations: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, must band together in the interest of free and open seas for the benefits of their citizens and economies. Although some of these nations, such as Cambodia and Brunei have already succumbed to pressure from Beijing, buying heavily into the BRI and staying quiet on Chinese maritime claims, other nations such as Philippines, hang in the balance as their internal politics shift from pro-Beijing rhetoric to firm opposition of China’s illegal South China Sea actions, as Philippine citizens see little benefit from BRI

Critical Indo-Pacific strategic arrangements such as the Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines are just some of the many reasons the United States should be racing towards providing some level of maritime security assurance. Nations like Taiwan have fantastic working relationships with the United States and can work as a model for empowering other South China Sea nations. 

Forming bilateral and multilateral agreements similar to counter-drug trafficking agreements in the Western Hemisphere can signal a shift in how South China Sea nations can respond to the PRC insurgency. These agreements provide a host of mutually-beneficial capabilities such as embarking USCG DSF personnel onboard host nation vessels to assist in LE action or vice versa, with host nation personnel aboard US vessels to enforce international or local laws. Other benefits include patrol aircraft operations in host nation territory and extradition of suspects of international or domestic crimes.

OFF THE COAST OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (July 6, 2018) U.S. Coast Guard deployable specialized forces (DSF) assigned to Maritime Security Response Team – West (MSRT-W) and Royal Canadian Navy explosive ordnance disposal technicians assigned to Fleet Diving Unit Pacific conduct maritime interdiction operations training in support of counter-improvised explosive device and mine warfare operations as part of Commander Task Force 177 during the force integration phase of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Southern California (SOCAL) exercise.  (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Matthew A. Stroup)

In the fight for a ‘rule of law’ at sea, these calculated steps provide a foundation to see that vision through. DSF’s teams can seamlessly integrate within host nations’ maritime force structure to contribute to law enforcement scenarios from the most basic boater safety inspections across the spectrum to high-risk joint operations with special operations. Compared to naval forces’ focus on combat at sea, the DSF’s law enforcement mission set combines a highly operational skill set with a very low threat of escalation. 

The M-COIN strategy pits the United States against a multi-tiered Blue Crime system in which Beijing uses both conventional naval assets and civilian vessels, requiring a measured response that ensures naval presence while focusing on day-to-day international maritime security. Law enforcement presence will pave a pathway for each host nation to build an appropriate and scalable maritime force with the ability to assert control over its sovereign waters. 

Other existing US Coast Guard programs such as the International Maritime Officers Course, which hosts commissioned international naval officers, and the Mobile Training Branch program, which sends active duty US Coast Guard personnel to host nations in a training capacity to improve their maritime forces, compliment this capability-building strategy. This international footprint builds credibility with other regional partners that can provide support in the form of vessels and aircraft. 

These partners like Taiwan, Australia, Japan, and India, can be chief enablers in this counterinsurgency strategy. An approach such as a combined maritime law enforcement task group could shake Beijing’s South China Sea strategy to its core. The international community is a key stakeholder in the M-COIN strategy to counter PLAN/CCG aggressions in the South China Sea. With host nation and international support, the United States could quickly exert some green-water sea control, while enabling local states to improve their own capabilities. 

A green-water sea control mission under JIATF-West supported by a 7th Fleet Maritime Combined Maritime Force offers Task Force and Commandant Command leadership a versatile maritime response capability in the Indo-Pacfic region while maintaining a broader mission aligned with the National Security Strategy. 

Coupling a very broad Federal Law Enforcement Authority and with the ability to act as a branch of the armed forces, USCG DSF are a force-multiplier on the water providing reach back to virtually all US Government inter-agency partners. DSF teams have proven themselves time and again, whether interdicting narco-subs in the Eastern Pacific, or seizing Iranian missile components or large caches of weapons in the North Arabian Sea. DSFs can seamlessly integrate with US SOF counterparts for high-risk maritime missions, or operate as self-contained security advisory teams for port facilities in remote areas, unique capabilities that bring a collaborative approach to security when compared to heavy-handed PRC bullying.

Furthermore, as a member of the US intelligence community since 2001, the USCG is charged with carrying out intelligence activities in the maritime domain, filling a unique niche within the Intelligence Community by supporting Coast Guard missions and national objectives

Integrating US Coast Guard intelligence personnel with DSFs bridges several organizational gaps by allowing the US Coast Guard to be the primary collectors and analyzers of intelligence with the support of both JIATF-West and the larger Intelligence Community. This flat and efficient structure can drive DSF teams into continuous sea-control operations against the PLAN/CCG insurgency while maintaining a strategic advantage for the region through enhanced partnerships and performance. Integrating USCG DSF in the South China Sea is part of a comprehensive, whole of government approach to countering PLAN/CCG insurgency.

A highly successful M-COIN strategy must be fiscally sustainable. The deployment of USCG DSF teams aboard host nation or coalition naval assets empowered with bilateral and multilateral international agreements is a cost effective first step. 

High-cost platforms like US Navy cruisers and destroyers are not ideal for M-COIN missions in green water areas like the South China Sea. With the time, cost, and red tape required to build large grey/white hull vessels, the US Navy and Coast Guard should look towards commissioning more adaptable platforms such as the US Navy Mk VI, US Coast Guard Fast Response Cutter, and the US Navy Littoral Combat Ship. These platforms are associated with relatively low costs of ownership and high capacity for a green-water sea control mission. 

The South China Sea’s nearly 1.351 million square miles require a large quantity of vessels to assert sea-control. Furthermore, the mere size of the vessels employed can signal the intent to escalate or deescalate the situation. Using smaller, cheaper craft is not only cost-effective, but also signals a commitment to peaceful law enforcement, rather than a tendency towards armed conflict.

With a price tag of $7.5 billion per Zumwalt-class destroyer and $800 million as the target cost of the Constellation-class frigate, a fleet of Mk VI boats costing $15 million per copy is a much easier sell in the defense budget. Other platforms from coalition partners such as Australia’s Cape-Class patrol boats are already used for fisheries protection, immigration, customs, and drug law enforcement operations. The Royal Norwegian Navy’s Skjold-class corvette conducts maritime security and sea control operations while still being capable of supporting special operations forces. 

A positive outcome using an M-COIN strategy in the South China Sea may not signal the end of an aggressive PRC/CCP. Ultimately, the PRC/CCP would like to see a completely expeditionary overseas military force that has logistics bases throughout the world to keep its interest protected. China is positioning itself to operate militarily on a global scale as the center of the world’s economic power. No reasonable observer wants to test this rise through open war, however, the United States and its allies must recognize the economic, political, criminal, and informational warfare the PRC/CCP is waging. 

Focusing on the nations that border the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region and ensuring their economic and political viability are not part of China’s plans for hegemony, but they are vital to the United States’ resistance to the rising global power of an authoritarian regime. Building the capacity of local nations to stand up for themselves will provide a check on Chinese ambitions locally, while signaling America’s commitment to preserving the global rule of law. The United States must look at sea-control in both blue and green water, as a long term strategy for the security of our world’s oceans so that free and open commerce may persist for generations to come, benefitting emerging nations and providing stability for all people.

Lawrence Hajek is the Director of Future Operations at Metris Global, an Arizona based defense contractor focused on Special Operations training and support. He is also the owner of Pinehawk Consulting, a consultancy focused on high tech innovation in the defense and commercial industry. He is a veteran of the US Coast Guard’s Deployable Specified Forces and member of CIMSEC. 

Featured image: Newly-built fishing vessels for Sansha City moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor. Note the exterior hull reinforcements and mast-mounted water cannons. (Hainan Government)

U.K. Carrier Capability Returns To The Indo-Pacific

By David Scott

Toward the end of May 2021, first the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and then the Queen visited the British flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at Portsmouth. In effect this was their wave-off as, amid much commentary and following much anticipation, the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) set off from Portsmouth for a seven-month long deployment, its first maiden operational deployment. One Australian newspaper ran the headline: “Rule, Britannia! UK deploys carriers to Indo-Pacific.”

In April 2021, the British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace set out the aims of the CSG deployment:

“It will be flying the flag for Global Britain – projecting our influence, signaling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Engaging with friends of course raises the questions of who is not being engaged with, who is not a U.K. friend, and is there any common enemy in sight – all of which points to China.

Global Britain reflects this reorientation of a post-Brexit UK away from the European Union and outwards to other parts of the world. It is no surprise that the U.K. is now talking, in its Integrated Review, of a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific,” given the increasing economic weight of this region. This economic shift brings with it a greater focus on sea lane security, protecting commerce flows, and freedom of navigation in international waters. Admiral Tony Radakin, the First Sea Lord, said in a speech at the Sea Power Conference, that the Integrated Review “signaled a maritime resurgence” for the U.K., operating through “the lens of classical geopolitics” in which the U.K. operations in “Mahan’s World Ocean” were aimed at “countering Chinese activity in the Asia-Pacific.”

This British naval deployment gives both political and operational support to the bigger U.S. efforts in the Indo-Pacific. The unstated rationale is sharing the burden against China. This was admitted as much by the British Defense Secretary Wallace admitted as much when he told the IISS think tank on the eve of the CSG setting forth, in a revealing China-application of the mission, that: “the UK’s fundamental strengths across the world is our friends and allies and that’s how we are going to force-multiply.” and that the “dawn of China on the USA is that USA is coming across a power it unilaterally cannot challenge and it realizes it needs alliances.”

Structure and Itinerary

The structure of the Strike Carrier Group is two-fold. First it is a powerful deployment of British assets, namely:

  • Aircraft Carrier: HMS Queen Elizabeth
  • Type-45 destroyers: HMS Defender and HMS Diamond;
  • Type-23 anti-submarine frigates, HMS Kent and HMS Richmond
  • Astute-class nuclear submarine
  • Royal Fleet Auxiliary logistics ships Fort Victoria and Tidespring

Two offshore patrol vessels, HMS Tamar and HMS Spey, have also been dispatched westwards across the Pacific where they will join the Carrier Strike Group. Such a deployment accounts for a significant portion of the U.K. surface fleet, which currently totals only 19 frigates and destroyers. As well as various stealth fighters, four Wildcat maritime attack helicopters, seven Merlin Mk2 anti-submarine helicopters and three Merlin Mk4 commando helicopters were embarked – the greatest quantity of helicopters assigned to a single British Task Group in a decade. A company of Royal Marines was also carried.

Second, while the British component is substantive, it also involves allied support. In part this is with non-British ships embedded into the CSG, namely:

  • U.S. destroyer: USS The Sullivans, for air defense and anti-submarine value
  • Dutch frigate: HNLMS Evertse
  • Two Australian frigates in the South China Sea*
  • New Zealand naval unit in the Pacific part of the deployment

The other area where the U.K. is using allied assets is in the CSG’s air component. Here, eight British F-35B Lightning strike aircraft are deployed on HMS Queen Elizabeth, with the bigger part of the warship’s fast-jet strike force actually made up of ten U.S. Marine Corps F-35s. To date Britain has only ordered 48 of the short-take-off, vertical-landing aircraft version of the F-35B, to be delivered by 2024, with deliveries currently standing at 21.

Led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, the strike group will interact with 40 states across the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Indo-Pacific, various allies, partners, and ‘like minded’ states. Amid those 40 states, China is absent.

The voyage will include a stop in Gibraltar, exercises (including anti-submarine warfare drills) with NATO and non-NATO partners around the Suez Canal, and a week-long stopover in Duqm, the British navy’s base in Oman. The use of the U.K. Joint Logistics Support Base at Duqm operationalizes its deep water carrier-supporting facilities, in which Duqm has been envisaged as a support and forward projection base for the U.K. in the Indian Ocean. Queen Elizabeth’s strike group will then take part in:

  • Konkan joint exercises with the Indian navy in the Indian Ocean
  • Bersama Lima exercises (probably in the South China Sea) with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand as part of a strengthened U.K. commitment to the Five Power Defense Agreements (FPDA)
  • Two weeks of exercises with Japan and the U.S. in the West Pacific

It is no coincidence that over the course of the deployment the Carrier Strike Group will operate with Indian, Australian, Japanese, and U.S. units – in other words with the members of “the Quad” group of countries, a group with which the U.K. is seeking ever-closer ties.

Naval operations with Japan and the U.S. reflect the trilateral partnership cooperation agreements signed between the Japanese, U.S., and UK navies; first of all by Admiral Phillip Jones in October 2016 and then by Admiral Tony Radakin in November 2019. The joint exercises carried out with India reflect and further the Carrier Capability Partnership signed in March 2019. Moreover, the U.K. deployment is part of emerging “carrier coordination” emerging between the U.S., France and the U.K.. The agreement signed on June 3, 2021, at Toulon between the three countries’ naval leaders specifically mentioned trilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Significance and Context

The significance of the CSG deployment is that it demonstrates the return of aircraft carrier capability to the U.K., and the ability of the U.K. to remain a naval power of some significance and with some global reach. Carrier aircraft capability had been lost in 2010 with the retirement of HMS Ark Royal and its Harrier jump jets. To reestablish this capability, the British government pursued the construction of two new 65,000 ton carriers during the 2010s. 

Consequently, HMS Queen Elizabeth was commissioned in December 2017. HMS Prince of Wales, surviving defense cuts, was commissioned in December 2019. Carrier Group formations were reestablished in naval strategy. The aircraft carriers carry 5th generation F-35 strike aircraft, giving the CSG’s air component significant range and punch.

The context for carrier deployment is the U.K.’s return to an “East of Suez” naval presence. This has involved renewed forward deployments and strengthened bases and facilities after a five year hiatus from 2013-2017 in already infrequent deployments. Subsequently, 2018-2020 witnessed renewed and continuous, sometimes overlapping, deployments from the U.K. across the Indo-Pacific by various destroyers and frigates; in the shape of HMSs Sutherland, Albion, Argyll, Montrose, Defender, and Enterprise. A further British destroyer has been earmarked for deployment in the Indo-Pacific in late-2021.

Strengthened British bases and facilities are now seen across and around the Indian Ocean. At Bahrain, HMS Jufair, abandoned in 1971 was re-established in 2018, and the U.K. Joint Logistics Support Base was opened at Duqm the same year. Increased U.K. use of Diego Garcia has been evident since 2018. Finally, in Singapore the modest U.K. presence in the repair and logistics facility (British Defence Singapore Support Unit) at Sembawang wharf, was supplemented with the Defence Staff Office in 2017, amid subsequent talk of further reinforcement of the U.K. presence there.

A U.K. focus on the Indo-Pacific was given further impetus by Brexit and the need to secure trade deals across the Indo-Pacific – involving South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, India, and New Zealand, as well as seeking entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which in turn has made security of sea lanes (commerce flows and shipping) of even greater significance for the U.K.

A further context for the dispatch of the CSG has been rising disquiet over China, both globally— over China’s challenge to rule of law norms, human rights violations (now including Xinjiang), and technology threat like Huawei’s G5 rollout— and in the Indo-Pacific region — by China’s suppression of Hong Kong, China’s militarization and excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea, and China’s Maritime Silk Road push across the Indian Ocean. The so-called “golden era” of U.K.-China relations talked about by the previous Cameron administration has given way to a less accommodating Johnson administration and with it some willingness to push back against China.

The China Factor

Although originally the CSG deployment was pitched as aiming to strengthen freedom of navigation operations, most at issue in the South China Sea, in fact the deployment schedule has become more circumspect over China. Two particular issues have shown this U.K. circumspection: the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

The U.K. does not take any position on the different sovereignty claims in the area. Ironically perhaps, the U.K. had itself claimed the Spratly Island chain in the 1920s, a claim that, although subsequently dropped, should logically give U.K. sympathy to Malaysian and Brunei claims (the successor states to the British possessions of Malaya, Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah) vis-à-vis China. What the U.K. does reject, however, are the excessive claims made by China in the South China Sea, and it has called on China to accept the ruling of the Permanent Court for Arbitration. 

The question is how far the CSG will involve itself in any of these issues. Then-Foreign Secretary Johnson told the press conference at the Australia-U.K. Ministerial meeting in 2017 that “one of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a FONOP – a freedom of navigation operation to this area.”

Mark Field, the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, in pinpointing China as a threat to “the rules-based international system,” reiterated in March 2019 the British “commitment” to future naval deployments “reinforcing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.” How far does the CSG deployment reinforce freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? There are various ways of doing this.

Firstly, previously the U.K. decided to have HMS Albion carry out a FONOP around the Paracel Islands in September 2018 to assert that China’s drawing of archipelagic baselines around the chain is invalid, since China itself is not an archipelagic state like Indonesia or the Philippines. Chinese outrage was high in 2018, and it may well be that the U.K. is now chary to repeating such an operation. If so, that would seem to be a pity, and in effect may cede those waters to China.

Secondly, in the Spratlys, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling in July 2016 (point 383) ruled that the Hughes Reef, Gaven Reef (South), Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal were “low tide elevations, i.e. under water at high tide. China’s reclamation (sand and concrete) building them up above high tide still left them as “artificial islands,” which under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) Article 60 merely had a 50-meter safety zone, rather than any 12-mile territorial waters or EEZ. The U.S. has made a point of sailing within the 12-mile territorial waters claimed by China for such artificial creations, but so far the UK has not. It could though.

Thirdly, another excessive claim is China’s demand that navies entering its Exclusive Economic Zone ask its permission. Like the U.S., the U.K. rejects this as a matter of principle. In addition, it supports the PCA ruling which specifically held (points 622, and 624) that none of the Paracels and Spratly features were “islands” under UNCLOS 121(3) sustaining ongoing “human habitation” or “economic life.” Instead they were above high tide “rocks” and, while entitled to 12-mile territorial waters, were not entitled to “island”-generated 200-mile EEZs. The 2016 PCA ruling also rejected China’s claims that their “historical rights” in themselves generate any EEZ. Indeed, it considered the “9-dash line” as “contrary to the [UNCLOS] Convention and without lawful effect” (point 278).

The CSG, or elements from it, could then carry out freedom of navigation operations around the Paracels (archipelagic excessive claims) and Spratlys (excessive claims over artificial islands) – but this has not been announced in advance. If this is deliberate avoidance of such activities, then it represents some tacit acceptance of Chinese pressure.

On the other hand, it may be that operational details are not being given in advance, and that CSG commanders have indeed instructions to carry out one or both of these types of freedom of navigation activities around the Paracels and/or Spratlys, on the spot and unannounced beforehand, so as to limit advance pressure that China would otherwise bring to bear. In this vein, U.K. transit through the South China Sea that goes within 200-miles of any of China-held features in the Paracels and Spratlys, since permission is not being sought, maintains their status as international waterways, and represents a minimum-level freedom of navigation operation. In going into, across, and through China’s nebulous “9-dash line”, the CSG could also be seen to be ignoring it.

A particularly pointed political decision would be if the CSG carried out exercises in the South China Sea with the U.S. Navy, which has been operating in greater carrier strength in the last few years. The precedent for bilateral U.K.-U.S. exercises in the South China Sea was on show during 2019, in January with HMS Argyll, and in February with HMS Montrose. Of course, there is already a U.S. destroyer embedded with the CSG in the shape of USS The Sullivans, so one could argue that explicit U.K.-U.S. naval cooperation in the South China Sea is being reiterated. Joint exercises with powerful U.S. forces are also already planned for the Philippine Sea, between the so-called first and second island chains in the Western Pacific.

A nearby China-related issue for the CSG is whether or not it (or elements of it) deploys westwards of Taiwan through the Taiwan Strait. As part of its campaign to squeeze Taiwan, China is increasingly starting to treat the Strait as domestic Chinese waters, and does not want to see foreign navies using it. It is worth noting that accelerating U.S. passage of the Taiwan Strait has been supported by some French and Canadian transit deployments. 

HMS Enterprise attracted further Chinese ire by transiting through the Taiwan Strait in December 2019, before returning again to the South China Sea for a week-long stay in Vietnam in February 2020. Thus speculation remains that, when the CSG transits through the South China Sea to get to South Korea and Japan, a more circuitous route will be taken – going east of Taiwan, rather than westwards through the Taiwan Strait. Operational details in the Taiwan area, like those in the South China Sea have not been specified in advance, so it remains a possibility that the U.K. CSG, or an element of it, might deploy through the Taiwan Strait as a point of principle, unannounced beforehand.

Ongoing U.K. presence

The final consideration is legacy. The U.K. will remain a modest player in the overall balance of naval power in the Indo-Pacific. The Royal Navy has a small increase in numbers envisaged for the 2020s but China far exceeds this. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Phillip Jones, noted in November 2018 that with regard to China, “if you look at the scale of their shipbuilding program purely in terms of tonnage, it broadly equates [annually] to launching the equivalent of the whole Royal Navy.”

Nevertheless, two good-sized new aircraft carriers are not to be dismissed as inconsequential. The U.K. carrier capacity does generate useful leverage in cooperation with other similarly China-concerned states. Of course, this modest useful contribution will only be realized if this renewed involvement in the region is maintained and if forward deployment is persistent.

U.K. force structure for the region is being boosted. Current U.K. thinking, laid down in the Integrated Review is to “increase” maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific, “including to uphold freedom of navigation,” specifically through deployment of:

  • Offshore Patrol Vessels from 2021
  • Littoral Response Group from 2023
  • Type-31 frigates later in the decade

In addition, regular deployments from UK home waters are envisaged throughout the 2020s.

In the meantime, with the arrival of the HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carrier, and the completion of full F-35B air components, the U.K. will have two CSGs, raising the question of where they would be deployed. The answer seems to be one for the Atlantic-Mediterranean area, and the other for the Indo-Pacific. Regular ongoing CSG deployment has been envisaged from the outset. Admiral Phillip Jones stated in 2018 that “it is certain that a Royal Navy task group, centered on a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, will regularly deploy East of Suez;” though leaving it unclear how far across the Indo-Pacific CSGs would regularly deploy, and how frequently “regularly” would mean. A timid U.K. response would be to keep CSG deployment within the Indian Ocean, a more robust response to help really address the problem of China would be to keep deploying its CSG further eastwards into the South China Sea and Western Pacific on a regular basis.

Dr. David Scott is an associate member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies. A prolific writer on maritime geopolitics, he can be contacted at

*This piece has been updated to mention the two Australian frigates in the South China Sea.

Featured image: HMS Queen Elizabeth on her maiden deployment to the Indo-Pacific region. Photo via @smrmoorhouse on twitter.

Mind the Gap: German Security Policy in the Indo-Pacific Between Aspiration and Reality

By Michael Paul and Göran Swistek


With the Indo-Pacific Guidelines published in August 2020, the German government has taken a clear position for a geographical area that is characterized by the multidimensional competition between the West, led by the United States, and China. The Indo-Pacific region is rightly perceived as the trade and economic engine of a globally interconnected and mutually interdependent market. In particular, the security policy aspects outlined in these recent guidelines, along with Germany’s interests in the region and some prospective measures to support these interests have fueled high expectations amongst partners and Indo-Pacific Rim nations for a visible and strong German commitment.

Individual German government representatives have presented the deployment of the frigate BAYERN in the second half of 2021 as a first performance test of Germany’s positioning. As the planning for the frigate’s deployment gains concrete shape, the high degree of caution exercised by the German government in implementing the guidelines is becoming manifest. The German government is trying to avoid taking a clear position in the security policy competition with China. Irrespective of the claims formulated in the Guidelines, Berlin also seems to play its foreign policy feel-good role as mediator and balancer of the most diverse poles in the Indo-Pacific rather than advocate a rules-based international order. German partners in the region increasingly perceive this gap with justifiable criticism.

The Security Policy aspirations of the German Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific

The publication of the Indo-Pacific Guidelines by the German Federal Government in August 2020 has generated a great deal of attention among many partners in the Asian and South-East Asian region. For some, this is associated with the perception and hope that Germany will show more presence in line with its economic importance as a ‘global player,’ and will make a greater contribution to maintain the regional order and stabilize the region.1 The Indo-Pacific – as an area of profound geostrategic, political, and economic interests – has become the focus of public debate and political strategy papers, especially within the last decade.

The multidimensional competition between China and Indo-Pacific Rim nations has spurred this interest. The competition has an economic, technological, systemic and, not to be neglected, a security policy dimension. Owing to the region’s numerous security challenges, Germany has proceeded with great caution over the recent years. Individual measures have mainly been directed at supporting and training local police forces and other civilian security organizations, or contributing to reconstruction after humanitarian and environmental disasters. Apart from providing humanitarian aid after the tsunami in Banda Aceh (2004/2005) and, most recently, individual contributions to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Atalanta off the Horn of Africa, the German armed forces have not been present in the region for the last two decades. Yet, this Indo-Pacific region, with all its challenges, is of particular geostrategic importance for many nations – including for Germany.

This predominantly maritime region is one of the largest economic hubs and is home to the largest share of global maritime trade by far. The South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait and the Lombok Strait sit at the center of the Indo-Pacific geography – both cartographically and economically – at the transition from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Almost one third of the international trade in goods is shipped2 through these straits every year. These trade flows are not only indispensable prerequisites for a functioning and flourishing global economy, but they can also pose a threat to the maritime environment, the security of coasts as well as port cities and their populations in the event of a disruption or disaster at sea. Moreover, access to the sea and its resources – including fossil deposits (oil and gas), minerals, and fish – is increasingly contested. Finally, there is a causal relationship between trade and prosperity; trade requires secure and stable trade routes to be fully developed. Prosperity is hence directly dependent on security. Germany’s way of life and economic prosperity are largely dependent on secure sea routes, and this is particularly true of the Indo-Pacific. The share of Germany’s trade in goods with the countries of the Indo-Pacific, measured in terms of total volume, amounts to about 20 per cent.3

The potential threats in the region are multi-layered: In addition to the often overarching strategic, economic, and systemic rivalry between the US and China, there are three nuclear powers in the Indo-Pacific (China, India, Pakistan) plus North Korea as a de-facto nuclear power whose intentions are especially difficult to calculate. This fragile constellation is made even more precarious by unresolved border disputes, internal and interstate conflicts, regionally and globally active terrorist organizations, piracy, organized crime, and the effects of natural disasters and migration movements. The latter aspects in particular, which tend to be summed up as non-traditional security threats, are high on the security policy agenda of the Indo-Pacific Rim nations.

The broad spectrum of security threats is in obvious contradiction with the importance of the Indo-Pacific for global flows of goods. In response to this security situation and as a perceptible implementation of the guidelines, the Federal Government intends to expand German engagement with the region in the future. It intends to intensify security and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, depending on the context, with individual states or organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and with actors who also have interests in the region. This can take place both unilaterally and within the framework of the EU, NATO, or the United Nations (UN).

In terms of content, Germany wants to be engaged in the following areas: Arms control, non-proliferation, cyber security, humanitarian and disaster relief, combating piracy and terrorism, conflict management and prevention, including the preservation of the rule-based order and the enforcement of international legal norms such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The instruments that the German government would like to use to these ends range from expanding and deepening cooperation in the region, to civilian and military diplomacy, to military presence in the context of exercises or other forms of on-site presence.

The BAYERN frigate as a symbol of the operationalization of the guidelines

For almost two years now, the German Navy has been planning to send a ship into the Indo-Pacific region. The deployment of the frigate HAMBURG planned for 2020 had to be cancelled at short notice in favor of the German contribution to the EU-led Operation IRINI off the coast of Libya. In her first policy guideline speech as Minister of Defense on November 7, 2019, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer formulated the associated intent that the Federal Republic would like to set an example vis-à-vis its partners, Germany cannot simply stand at the sidelines and watch but rather intends to contribute to the protection of the international order4. At the same time, the participation of German forces and units in the EU’s Operation Atalanta off of the Horn of Africa was only sporadically exercised by maritime patrols due to their maintenance availability. The navy has now temporarily suspended this deployment with units in the operation and will also withdraw its supporting logistical presence from Djibouti as of May 2021. The mandate for this operation has been extended by the German Parliament for the time being, but the navy has no units available for a permanent presence. Despite Djibouti’s pivotal geostrategic location, situated between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, at the gateway to Africa, the Indo-Pacific region, and the Arabian Peninsula, the location no longer be available for use as a possible logistics and base in support of regional developments. A temporary participation remains possible when German warships pass through this maritime region.

In her second policy guideline speech a year later, on 17 November 2020, the Defense Minister held out the prospect of sending a frigate in 2021 and linked its deployment directly to the requirements of the recently issued Indo-Pacific Guidelines: “We will fly the flag for our values, interests and partners.”5 At the beginning of March 2021, the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry of Defense then published concrete details on the upcoming tour of the frigate BAYERN. Starting in August, the frigate is scheduled to embark on a six-month journey, conducting more than a dozen official port visits between the Horn of Africa, Australia and Japan in the Indo-Pacific. In line with the guidelines for the Indo-Pacific, the task for the ship is initially to show presence in the region and deepen diplomatic relations, including official receptions on board. The German Defense Minister therefore formulates the mission of the frigate BAYERN primarily as a symbol that will show the German solidarity and interest in the region6. In addition, various exercises and drills with naval units of the host states, e.g. in Japan, as well as a short-term participation in Operation Atalanta are planned. The functional cause of the German deployment is to highlight the cooperation with the democracies in the region and to prove the German engagement in the security dialogues on the ground.7 The operational culmination of the tour is a three-week participation in the UN sanctions measures against North Korea. In this respect, the deployment of the frigate fulfils a mission that can be directly derived from the guidelines.

The German frigate Bayern (EUNAVOR photo)

In contrast, the German government and the Armed Forces are much more attentive in their relations with China. Beijing’s behavior towards regional neighbors is not in line with the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing is making disputed territorial claims to the Japanese-administered Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and, beyond that, to most of the South China Sea – with the claimed territory also including the sovereign Republic of Taiwan. The International Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled on 12 July 2016 that Beijing’s claims did not comply with the Law of the Sea Convention and were therefore invalid.8

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Defense avoids conflict-prone sea areas when planning the details and route of the German warship. The frigate BAYERN will therefore not sail through the Taiwan Strait, but will bypass Taiwan on a longer route to the east. Similarly, in the South and East China Seas, the territories claimed by the People’s Republic of China will be bypassed and the frigate will move along the main international traffic and trade routes. Based on the time and distance factors for the tour of the German Warship, there will also be no interaction with the UK led carrier strike group assembled around the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The carrier strike group will start its deployment to the Indo-Pacific in May 2021 and intends to sail as far as to the Japanese Islands as well. Like the German frigate, it will bypass the Taiwan Strait. But unlike the German plans for its warship, the carrier strike group with its Dutch, US, and temporary Australian participating9 units is planning to conduct a Freedom of Navigation transit through the South Chinese Sea.10

Conclusion: Disappointed expectations

The presence of the BAYERN frigate is a first visible symbol of German interests in the Indo-Pacific, but it does not support the freedom of navigation called for in the Indo-Pacific Guidelines and its underpinning in international law through appropriate navigation in these free and open international sea lanes. It was precisely this contribution to international law and regional order that some Pacific Rim nations states had hoped for from Germany as a prominent representative of the EU canon of values.11 This made governments in the region all the more surprised about Germany’s announcement that it would also conduct a port call in China as part of the tour. On completion of its participation at the UN sanctions measures against North Korea the frigate BAYERN will sail through the East China Sea and conduct an official diplomatic port visit to Shanghai.

Since the initial announcement of the details for the deployment of the frigate BAYERN in March 2021, the German Minister of Defense repeatedly stated that the Freedom of Navigation aspect and the embedding in multilateral cooperation are key elements of this journey.12 The lack of cooperation with the UK-led carrier strike group invites speculation: Was it ignored or neglected for a certain reason, or simply missed in the planning process? Based on the publicly available information and announcements of the official German government agencies, the details of the tour have never been purposely altered since its publication to avoid any interaction with ships around the HMS Queen Elizabeth, as recently stated by some analysts.13 The more likely possibility is that the German Ministry of Defense never even considered any cooperation with the carrier strike group from the beginning, as such a combined naval force would send too strong signal for the German appearance in the Indo-Pacific.

Germany likes to present itself as a global player in foreign economic policy, but in foreign and security policy it hides behind limited capabilities as a middle power. This neither helps its partners in the Indo-Pacific, nor does it correspond to the often declared willingness to assume more responsibility. The BAYERN deployment plots a steady and cautious course to continued German reluctance.

Dr. Michael Paul is a Senior Fellow and Commander Goeran Swistek is a Visiting Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).


1. The Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi expressed his expectations during the virtual Asia tour of the German Defense Minister in autumn and winter 2020 in a round of talks on 17 December 2020, hosted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. See, among others, Ryall, Julian, Japan calls on Germany to send warship to East Asia, Deutsche Welle, 18 December 2020, on the Internet at:, last viewed: 03.05.2021.

2. The data was taken from the publications of the China Power Project by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. On the Internet at: Last viewed: 03.05.2021.

3. The Federal Government/Foreign Office: Guidelines on the Indo-Pacific. Available online at–1–data.pdf, last viewed: 13.01.2021.

4. Kramp-Karrenbauer, Annegret, First Policy Address by the Minister of Defense:, last viewed: 03.05.2021.

5. Kramp-Karrenbauer, Annegret, Second Policy Address by the Minister of Defense, Translation into English by the Authors,, last viewed: 03.05.2021.

6. Internationale Politik, Interview with Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Das Deutschland führen soll, macht viele Angst, in: Internationale Politik, 28 April 2021, on the Internet:, last viewed: 03.05.2021.

7. Ibid.

8. Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), PCA Case Nº 2013-19 in the Matter of the South China Sea Arbitration before an Arbitral Tribunal Constituted under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea between The Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China. Award, 12.7.2016.

9. Tillett, Andrew, Australian navy to join UK carrier in regional show of strength, in: Australian Financial Review, 11. Feb 2021, in the internet:, last viewed: 06.05.2021.

10. UK Defence Journal, British Carrier Strike Group to sail through South China Sea, in the internet:, last viewed: 06.05.2021.

11. Cf. Michael Paul, “Europe and the South China Sea: challenges, constraints and options”, in: Sebastian Biba and Reinhard Wolf (eds.), Europe in an Era of Growing Sino-American Competition. Coping with an Unstable Triangle, London and New York: Routledge, 2021, pp. 92-106.

12. See also Interview with the German Minister of Defense, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, in the internet:, last viewed: 06.05.2021.

13. Kundnani, Hans & Tsuruoka, Michito, Germany’s Indo-Pacific frigate may send unclear message, in the internet:, last viewed: 06.05.2021.

Featured Image: The German naval ship BAYERN sets course for the Horn of Africa in 2011. The BAYERN led the European task force for the anti-pirate operation “Atalanta” for four months. Photo: Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) 07/18/2011