Germany plans a greater peace and security role in the Indo-Pacific

As the political and economic centre of the world shifts from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, and geostrategic competition increases, Germany, the EU and NATO want closer defence cooperation with nations such as Australia.

Germany’s defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, told an online seminar organised by ASPI that Australia was regarded as a ‘rock of stability’ in the region and had a key role to play in maintaining peace and security.

‘We intend to expand security and defence cooperation with those who share our values in the region, intensify our military contexts and promote dialogue on matters of security.’

Germany planned to send naval vessels to patrol Indian Ocean trade routes next year and it was discussing with the Australian Defence Force the possibility of placing liaison officers aboard Australian naval vessels, she said.

‘This is where the shaping of the future international order will be decided’, Kramp-Karrenbauer told the seminar hosted by ASPI’s executive director, Peter Jennings, and Dr Beatrice Gorawantschy, the head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation office in Canberra, who were involved in a wide-ranging discussion with the minister and her Australian counterpart, Linda Reynolds.

During their discussion on the ‘Indo-Pacific: Geostrategic challenges and opportunities for Australia and Germany’, the ministers focused strongly on two key documents, Australia’s 2020 defence strategic update and Germany’s new Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific.

Jennings said it was clear that Germany and the European Union were intent on stepping up their game in the region. He said the German policy set out an ambitious plan for increased engagement across the economy, security, the climate, the stability of the rules-based international order, digital connectivity, and people-to-people links.

The thrust of the German guidelines was that the Indo-Pacific’s overall structure was in flux in the face of significant shifts in the balance of power and growing differences. That was in accord with Australia’s strategic update’s view that: ‘The rules, norms, and institutions that help maintain peace and security and guide global cooperation are under strain.’

Reynolds welcomed Germany’s intensification of engagement in the Indo-Pacific, saying it was a stark reality that the post-Covid world would be poorer, more dangerous, and more disorderly. ‘I firmly believe that in today’s world, geographical distance is simply a historic mindset, and it doesn’t matter that we’re not in the same time zone. It doesn’t matter that we don’t share physical borders, and, as Annegret said, it doesn’t matter that we live thousands of kilometres away.

‘Together, we must continue to promote peace and prosperity for all towards a region where there is cooperation and healthy competition, not confrontation, coercion or conflict.’

Reynolds said security brought peace and peace brought prosperity. One could not exist without the other. ‘And today, the world’s most populous region, the Indo-Pacific, is facing its most consequential strategic realignment since the end of World War II.

‘We’re seeing increased major-power competition. Nations right across the Indo-Pacific are modernising their militaries and adopting disruptive technologies. In the 2030s, half of the world’s submarines and half of the world’s most advanced combat aircraft will be operating in the Indo-Pacific and coercive tactics, including cyberattacks, foreign interference, and also economic pressure are being increasingly employed.’

Such coercive tactics exploited the grey zone between peace and war and undermined sovereignty. ‘Influence becomes interference, economic cooperation becomes coercion and investment becomes entrapment.’

The pandemic had exposed the need for Australia along with other nations, including Germany, to build stronger, more resilient and more assured supply chains. ‘And as defence ministers, Annegret and I have the job of seeing the world as it actually is, not as we might wish it still was. The region has become less stable and this has significant consequences far beyond our region.’

Kramp-Karrenbauer said peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific were important for Europe and Germany, which wanted to be reliable and stable partners and friends of the region.

‘We want to live up to our responsibility for a rules-based international order, and we want to take an active part in shaping that order. So, we are prepared to defend our interests with active deeds, not just words. And we have to do that more so than in the past.’

She said human rights and democratic standards must be protected and open societies maintained. Sea routes must remain open and trade must be based on fair rules. Intellectual property must be protected. ‘I know that many states in the region such as Australia share these ideas; these are our like-minded partners.’

But these principles were being challenged everywhere because some countries were not prepared to accept them.

Kramp-Karrenbauer said that as a nation with a strong economy and which acted globally, a rules-based international order was absolutely necessary for Germany.

‘And we are also interested in security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. With China and Japan and the United States, these are the three largest world economies and they are all Pacific neighbours. Southeast Asia is turning into a motor for global economic development.’

At the same time, she said, the Indo-Pacific was becoming an arena of global power competition. ‘We can see the increasing rivalry between the United States and China.’ Germany had strong economic relations with China, but also a strong value-based partnership with the US. This was a challenge for Germany as it was likely to be for Australia, she said.

Kramp-Karrenbauer said like-minded countries needed to cooperate more. ‘We need strong partnerships … between Germany and Australia, but we also need an international network that goes beyond that.’ She added that the relationship with Australia was all-encompassing and not just about security and defence.

The planned naval deployment in the Indian Ocean was postponed because of the pandemic and pressing operational needs in the Mediterranean but it was likely to take place next year, she said. ‘That is an important signal to send.’

‘We are intensifying our talks about new ways of cooperation, such as in the field of cyber and information and space.’

Kramp-Karrenbauer said Germany wished to increase cooperation with ASEAN, which played a central part in the intensification and promotion of multilateral activities and in the promotion of peaceful ways of settling conflicts. ‘We want to show more presence. We want to send out a signal of solidarity with our partners that share the same values.

‘A strong regional security architecture has a direct bearing on the international security architecture. For me, this means that EU and NATO must play a more active role here. We want to intensify the strategic dialogue with our partners that share the same values. We want to extend our partnership and support each other.’

Reynolds said that Australia, too, was seeking to advance its shared interests with ASEAN ‘and we continue to resolutely support ASEAN’s centrality’.

‘Earlier this year in Hanoi, I presented Australia’s vision for the future of our defence partnership with ASEAN. Two weeks ago, I visited three ASEAN partners, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines, to further our bilateral defence engagements and also to further discuss shared regional security challenges. I also visited Japan to meet with the new defence minister, Kishi [Nobuo].’

Jennings said there were many points of commonality about risks and necessary responses, and many opportunities for cooperation. ‘From an Australian perspective, I think that increased German and EU engagement in the Indo-Pacific is an unalloyed good.’