KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 291

Germany’s Indo-Pacific guidelines: Sources and consequences of Germany’s Indo-Pacific foreign policy

Rafal Ulatowski

The ‘unipolar moment’ is over and the liberal international order created by the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union is being challenged by Russia and China. However, since the US authorities believe only China is capable of posing a serious challenge to American hegemony, competition among the great powers is increasingly shifting to the Indo-Pacific region. Since the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, the United States and Indo-Pacific regional powers have been anxiously observing the rise of China. European powers, as well, face growing pressure to tailor their Indo-Pacific strategies to the new reality.

The US-China conflict is a challenge for Germany. The United States has been the guarantor of German security, and of the liberal international order that Germany has benefited from. The United States is also Germany’s biggest export market. On the other hand, Germany and China enjoy a strategic partnership, and China is Germany’s biggest trade partner.

Over the last few years, relations between Germany and China have deteriorated. With China being described by chancellor Angela Merkel as a both a “strategic partner” and a “strategic competitor”, Germany intensified its diplomatic efforts towards Indo-Pacific regional powers other than China, and for the first time in almost two decades sent a warship into Pacific waters. How should Germany’s current activities in the Indo-Pacific region be understood?

A brief history of Germany’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific

Germany’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region is quite a new phenomenon. During the Cold War, the foreign policy of the Federal Republic of Germany was concentrated in Europe due to the permanent sense of threat posed by the Soviet Union and Germany’s engagement in furthering European Integration. But afterwards, Germany saw new opportunities opening up. Now surrounded by friends and allies, without any state in Europe threatening it, and still safe under the US security umbrella, Germany became willing to diversify its relations with non-European partners. In the 1990s those relations were mainly economic, but later, as the strategic importance of Asia grew, Germany also began developing political relations with non-European regional powers.

In Germany’s strategy towards Asia, China has a special role. In 2004 the two countries signed an agreement on a ”strategic partnership in global responsibility”, which was raised in March 2014 to the level of a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. Though the cooperation the agreement concerned was defined broadly, in practice it was mainly economic, though that economic cooperation was also intended to serve political goals. German politicians such as foreign minister Guido Westerwelle argued that China’s growing prosperity and economic integration with the West should turn it into a more liberal country. This strategy, called “change through trade”, guided the thinking of German decision-makers for years. Yet, against expectations, as China became richer it also became more assertive, gave up its low-profile policy and started questioning the principles of the liberal international order. That order, of which Germany was a chief beneficiary, began to wobble – and Germany began rethinking the future of its relations with China. The first reflection of this was a paper published by the influential Federation of German Industries (BDI) in 2019, where China was identified as both a “partner” and a “systemic competitor” – a rather surprising description, since it was German industry that had profited enormously from Chinese growth in the previous three decades. The truth was, though economic interests had once brought China and Germany closer together, their economies had become less complementary – in fact, they had begun to compete against each other. Starting in the mid-2010s, Germany became sceptical about Chinese geoeconomic proposals (like the BRI), and saw Chinese companies as rivals of German companies. Chinese telecommunications equipment producers were seen with growing suspicion as Germany realised just how dependent it was on foreign suppliers. These are only a few examples of the growing economic divergence between the two countries. At the same time, geopolitical differences arose. In 2020, Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed to the following geopolitical differences between Germany and China: Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, and called China ‘the biggest foreign policy challenge for Germany’. By the end of the second decade of the 21st century, Germany’s foreign policy elites saw China as – simultaneously – an important partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival.

An Indo-Pacific vision

In 2020, Germany published its Indo-Pacific Guidelines. As indicated numerous times by German politicians and diplomats, the guidelines were designed to diversify Germany’s relations with regional powers in the Indo-Pacific region. Germany wants to maintain good relations with China, but also to go beyond them by developing partnerships with other countries in the region. The Indo-Pacific has been described by German foreign minister Heiko Maas as “a priority of German foreign policy”, since the “region is becoming the key to shaping the international order in the twenty-first century”, as indicated in the Guidelines. Half the world’s people live in the Indo-Pacific, and almost 40 per cent of global GDP is created there; the German government anticipates that Germany will be economically dependent on the region in the future. Germany’s vision of the Indo-Pacific region therefore includes the following areas: peace and security, diversifying and deepening relations with countries of the region, securing sea lines of communication (SLOC), securing open and free trade, digital transformation and connectivity, climate protection, and access to fact-based information.

Soft balancing

Germany’s Guidelines were published despite Chinese opposition to the use of the term “Indo-Pacific”. But the publication is only one pillar of the new German policy towards the region – and towards China, against which Germany is increasingly engaging in a strategy known as “soft balancing”.

In 2020 and 2021, German foreign minister Heiko Maas and defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer met with unprecedented frequency with their counterparts from Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore to discuss subjects such as freedom of SLOCs, regional territorial disputes, cyber and IT cooperation, and arms. All along the way, the German ministers underlined the interests and values Germany shares with those countries.

On top of that, in August 2021 Germany sent the frigate Bayern to the region. This was the first visit by a German warship to the Pacific since 2002. The presence of the ship certainly didn’t change the balance of power in the region. It was a symbolic gesture intended to strengthen the position of Germany’s democratic partners in the region. It also backed up the words of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer that Germany is ready to go beyond diplomacy and negotiations and to also include military means in its arsenal of foreign policy tools in the region. But the mission of the Bayern differs from those of the American, British, Australian or French navies in the region: it did not demonstrate freedom of navigation, since the frigate deliberately avoided all disputed waters. Moreover, its planned visit to the harbour of Shanghai had to be called off when China refused to allow the German ship to enter port. The Chinese authorities found it difficult to accept any sort of German military presence in the region.


The Indo-Pacific strategy of the German government is rooted in the failure of its ‘change through trade’ policy towards China. The rise of China is increasingly interpreted in Germany as a threat to German interests. Today, through cooperation with Indo-Pacific regional powers, Germany seeks to support not only the principles of the liberal international order, but also the regional political and territorial status quo. The goal is to avoid a new bipolar structure in the world. For this reason, Germany developed a new strategy towards China: soft balancing. Of course, given its military weakness and reluctance to participate in military operations, as well as its great geographical distance from China, Germany is more than happy to pass the buck of containing China to a coalition of the United States and regional powers.

Rafal Ulatowski는 바르샤바대학교 (University of Warsaw) 정치 및 국제학부 (Faculty of Political Science and International Studies) 조교수이다. 그는 아데나워재단 (Konrad Adenauer Foundation), 독일 학술교류처 (German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, 2013년 및 2014-2015년) 독일 폴란드 문화 연구소 (German Institute of Polish Culture, 2015년) 및 프랑스 정부 (2015년)의 장학금을 수여한 바 있다. 그의 연구는 독일 외교정책 및 개발도상국의 국제정치경제학에 중점을 두고 있다.
  • The author’s opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not reflect the view of KIMS.

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