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.5 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.
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.
 Kundnani, Hans and Tusuoka, Michito, “Germany’s Indo-Pacific frigate may send unclear message,” Chatham House, 04.05.2021, via: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/05/germanys-indo-pacific-frigate-may-send-unclear-message?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=organic-social&utm_campaign=europe-programme-expert-comment&utm_content=german-naval-deployment
 “Germany – Europe – Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together”: Federal Government adopts Indo-Pacific Guidelines. 01.09.2020, https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/de/aussenpolitik/regionaleschwerpunkte/asien/indo-pazifik-leitlinien/2380340
 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.
 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.
 Swistek, Goran, “Squaring the Circle in the Indo-Pacific,” SWP News 2021/A 29, March 2021, via: https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2021A29/
 Chamberlain, “The Royal Canadian Navy,” p. 1.
 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)