There was much talk of shared values, value partners, solidarity, open sea routes and a rules-based international order on August 2, 2021. The reason for the broad-legged choice of words was a floating monster made of gray steel: the frigate “Bavaria”, which set sail from the German naval base Wilhelmshaven from the direction of the Indo-Pacific and was adopted by Germany’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (CDU). For the first time in about twenty years, a German warship is once again on the move in this region of the world. About seven months the “Bavaria” will cruise through the world’s oceans. Via the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Suez Canal, Horn of Africa, it goes to Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Australia and back to its home port.
What are you doing? The Ministry of Defense attached importance to the statement that it was not a deployment, but a “presence and training trip”. In other words, you fly the flag, visit fleet bases along the way and participate in various exercises with other states. For example, at the NATO mission “Sea Guardian” in the Mediterranean, at the EU mission “Atalanta” against piracy, arms smuggling and terrorism in the Horn of Africa and at the UN Mission for Maritime Surveillance off North Korea.
It’s about China’s ownership claims
It was not a so-called mandated mission with a concrete mission doctrine, because Parliament would have to be consulted on this. Therefore, no explicit “rules of engagement” – for example, for an unfriendly encounter with the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea – would be issued, as the German Naval command in Rostock specifies. However, the “right to self-defense is excluded here”, holds the naval command.
So it can be quite tricky. After all, the whole exercise is essentially about China and its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague declared in 2016 to be contrary to international law. In the words of Kramp-Karrenbauer it sounds like this: “The message is clear: We are flying the flag for our values and interests, together with our partners and allies! This is important because it is a reality for our partners in the Indo-Pacific that the freedom of the seas is being restricted and sea routes are no longer safe. They see attempts being made to enforce territorial claims under the law of the fittest.“But” our commitment in the Indo-Pacific means not being against something or someone, but standing up for something together: it’s about acting together. And to resolve possible conflicts peacefully and in partnership. ( … ) We cooperate with China where we can and we stand against it where we have to. Because anyone who tries to circumvent international laws and impose their own rules of the game on us and our partners, we are united against.”
Meet the wishes of the USA
The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) also commented on the great journey of the warship towards Asia. In the Indo-Pacific, the international order of the future is deciding. “We want to help shape this and take responsibility for maintaining the rules-based international order,” said Maas. But Germany’s flag is not held up solely for the sake of international order. The fleet visit comes at a time of growing tensions between China and the US – and the US expects more support from NATO allies such as Germany, including in Asia. Berlin probably also wants to underline that the wishes of Washington are to be followed more willingly than in the era of Trump.
However, the ship trip has a blatant flaw in terms of “rule-based international order”. Because the route also leads over the US military base Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, which is extremely controversial under international law. Logistically, a supply stop at NATO partner USA is obvious, because the refueling and refueling of food and other goods would be uncomplicated and possible without great diplomatic effort. But the proclamation of the voyage as a demonstration of a “rules-based international order” is likely to be damaged.
An analysis by the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin shows why this is the case. The SWP is one of the most influential German foreign and security policy research institutions and is the largest European think tank in these areas; it advises not only the German government and the Bundestag, but also EU and NATO bodies. “Diego Garcia, the largest island of the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean, once belonged to the British island colony of Mauritius. In 1965, in violation of international law, it was transformed into a separate administrative unit to allow the construction of a British military base there. London declared the entire archipelago a military restricted area and deported the inhabitants to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Since then, mostly US soldiers have been stationed at the military base. The UK has leased the island to the US until 2036,” writes the SWP.
USA tortured secretly on Diego Garcia
Since the 1980s, Mauritius has been trying to regain sovereignty over the Chagos archipelago. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) classified London’s claim to the archipelago as contrary to international law and even called on the UN member states to support decolonization. in 2021, the International Court of Justice (ISGH) in Hamburg joined the assessment of the ICJ in a judgment. “But it is also about fundamental human rights: Diego Garcia was demonstrably a US prison camp where suspected terrorists were held, interrogated and tortured. Until the discovery by media research in 2003, the camp was completely secret, unlike, for example, Guantanamo Bay.”
German Double Standards
If the planned route remains, according to the SWP analysis, “with regard to the defense of the rule-based order and international law, a certain double standard could hardly be dismissed. From London’s open refusal to comply with the UN resolution and the ICJ ruling, it follows that visits to the archipelago would de facto accept the status quo, which is at least problematic under international law, if not openly supported.”
China could therefore rightly accuse Germany of double standards when it comes to “rules-based international order”. “At a time when international norms and rules are increasingly being called into question in the context of the ever-increasing Sino-American great power vitality, all this is certainly not in Germany’s strategic interest,” the SWP points out. According to the SWP, if Germany were to accept a little more, it could also show that it is prepared to comply with international law even “if it contradicts its own short-term operational interests as well as the expectations of partner countries to a certain extent.”