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Our prosperity and our geopolitical influence in the coming decades will depend on how we work together with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region. That, more than anywhere else, is where the shape of the international rules-based order of tomorrow will be decided. We want to help shape that order – so that it is based on rules and international cooperation, not on the law of the strong."
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on the release of the German Goverrnment's Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific
"This strategy is an expression of diversification. "
Germany has just put itself on the map of the Indo-Pacific by issuing a foreign policy guideline paper that identifies the region as a key strategic priority, pledging to actively contribute to shaping it according to the principles of the rules-based order. Especially notable is Foreign Minister Heiko Maas' acknowledgement that the future of the rules-based international order will be decided in the Indo-Pacific. There has certainly been an ongoing recognition in Germany of the need for more global responsibility in the face of a changing transatlantic relationship. Yet the emphasis on strategic involvement appears as a bold move for a country that has long pursued a more trade-based approach of economic diplomacy to geostrategic competition. The paper was issued by the Federal Foreign Office but is said to represent a cross-departmental effort, with the German Ministry of Defence also playing a key role,
The release appears strategically timed with the current German presidency of the EU and also comes against the backdrop of mounting European discontent with China - especially evident in a so-called 'failed charm offensive' by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li on his recent visit to persuade continental Europe that China was a more reliable partner than the US.
This was evident for example in the German Foreign Minister's warning to the Chinese Foreign Minister that 'threats don't fit in here' after Wang Li's rebuke of the Czech senate president for visiting Taiwan. As one commentator put it,
"In the ritualized world of diplomatic jargon, this moment signaled not only a new European tone but also a new direction."
Coupled with the sharper rhetoric, some have interpreted the policy guidelines as signaling a profound change in direction towards a more assertive German foreign policy- even a 'declaration of independence' of sorts. This could also be deduced in conjunction with statements by the German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. In a foundational address on security policy at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich in November 2019 she for example stated that "It is time for Germany to defend its interests more vigorously ". And even more clearly in a recent interview on the EU's Strategic Compass:
"The biggest threat to our security is our own complacency and disunity. Europe is surrounded by instability and conflict. It also has profound interests in its neighborhood. And yet we find it hard to create our own meaningful ability to act. That must change. I want to move towards a Europe starts producing security and stability where it matters. "
This way, if Germany is indeed sending a strategic message to China, it is doing so in a very careful manner in this document - one that is deliberately distinct from the US' more confrontational approach. By reinforcing trade ties and connections with countries like Japan, Australia, and India, the driver behind the paper's declared goal of 'diversification' can be seen as a more subtle push-back against China’s influence in the region as well as in Europe.
As the German Ambassador to India stated in response to questions about whether the policy guidelines were a message to China, it 'wasn't directed at one country', instead
"...we have to have a multipolar system where not one ruler dominates the area just because they are big. There is no way that bully countries or hegemonic countries should have their way. The stronger should not have their way. It’s important to have rules in the Indo-Pacific region”
Consequently, the policy guidelines appear to carefully couch any clear strategic positioning in frequent references to the rules-based multilateral cooperation as the driving motivation behind the new guidelines.
As one analyst poignantly put it, "Germany is ready to cross the river, but it is wary of getting swept away."
Whether the strategy is a sign of Germany beginning to chart its own course independent from Great Power rivalries is consequently subject to evolving debates. Some commentators interpret these guidelines as reflecting ongoing indecisiveness and lack of resolve - rather than a new direction. Such critical probes go alongside questions about whether this document can indeed be seen as a coherent strategy, as it is mostly referred to, or simply constitutes an assortment of recommendations in key policy areas that do not necessarily qualify as 'direction-giving' in an overall strategic sense. This ambiguity is not clarified by the document itself - which is deliberately packaged under the title 'policy guidelines, yet in the text- at least in the English version of the executive summary - it calls itself a strategy. Seeing that the paper was only released one week ago, these and other questions will evolve over time and leave us plenty to address in subsequent analyses.