Germany’s defense engagement in the Indo-Pacific is a balancing act

Opinion piece (The Diplomat)
Christina Keßler
15 June 2024

Like the 2021 edition, Germany’s 2024 Indo-Pacific Deployment will signal Berlin’s commitment to the region – and the limits of its presence.

On May 7, the German Navy kicked off its second Indo-Pacific deployment. Two ships, the frigate Baden-Württemberg and the combat supply ship Frankfurt am Main, set sail for a world tour.

The deployment is another step Germany is taking to increase its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, showcasing its commitments to its regional partners, including India, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan. At the same time, Germany is trying to preserve good relations with its important trading partner, China. This poses a difficult balancing act for the country.Over recent years, tensions in the Indo-Pacific have been increasing, especially in the maritime domain. Competing territorial claims between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia – notably in the South China Sea – risk escalating, and threaten peace and stability. 

The rising tensions motivated the German Navy to conduct its first Indo-Pacific deployment in 2021. The frigate Bayern set sail for the Indo-Pacific, the first time in almost two decades that a German warship cruised the region. Port calls included Pakistan, Australia, Guam, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and India. Partners welcomed the tour, but it also became apparent that Germany’s defense engagement in the region has limits. Throughout the tour, Germany attempted a diplomatic balancing act. It tried to signal to partners its willingness to be more engaged in the Indo-Pacific, while simultaneously signaling to Beijing that its mission was not about confronting China.

The Bayern requested to stop in Shanghai, a signal from the German Navy that the mission should not be understood as directed against China. This led to some irritation from observers in Japan and Australia. However, the requested port call was rejected by Chinese officials.

Apart from this, the Bayern was careful not to do anything that could lead to tensions with China. While the frigate traversed the South China Sea, it stayed on international shipping routes and did not conduct any military drills (exercises or rehearsals of prescribed movements). According to international law, warships have the right to “innocent passage” through the territorial seas of other countries. At high sea (waters that do not fall under the jurisdiction of any one country), however, ships are allowed to hold military drills. One could therefore argue that the voyage of the Bayern recognized Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Geographically it might be far, but the Indo-Pacific is deeply intertwined with the German economy. Germany is the world’s third-largest export nation and the Indo-Pacific is a global trade hub, home to nine of the world’s ten largest ports. Waterways like the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca are vital to the global economy. China is Germany’s most important trading partner, and positive ties between the two countries are crucial for German industry. Due to its economic entanglement with the region, Germany has a strong interest in a stable Indo-Pacific where freedom of navigation is upheld. In recent years, German policymakers have become more attentive toward the region. In 2020, the country released its policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific, which defined Germany’s interests there. A lot of these interests relate to Germany’s economic interests, such as maintaining open markets and free trade as well as open shipping rules. The guidelines also talk about global challenges, such as changing geopolitical dynamics, climate change, digital transformation, and access to fact-based information. 

Next to contributing to peace and stability in the region, Germany wants to diversify and deepen its relations across the Indo-Pacific. In 2023 Germany released its first-ever National Security Strategy, which reiterated that the Indo-Pacific “remains of special significance to Germany and Europe.”

At the same time, the tone of the German government toward China has become tougher, as indicated by Germany’s 2023 China Strategy. The document acknowledges that China has changed immensely under Xi Jinping and now challenges German interests. For example, Beijing has put principles of international law into question, such as by ignoring the ruling of an international tribunal regarding the South China Sea, which rejected most of China’s territorial claims. China has also engaged in economic coercion against Germany’s partners, including EU member states like Lithuania. 

But when it comes to concrete policies, the strategy remains vague. Germany does not want to cut its relations with China, especially on the business side of things. At the same time, Berlin tries to strengthen relations with other countries in the region in order to diversify its economic dependencies.  


A conflict in the Indo-Pacific would severely damage the German economy. It also would put Germany in a difficult position, as the United States and other partners present in the region would likely expect some kind of support from Berlin. In order to support stability in the region, Germany is increasing its presence with a second deployment. 

From this May until December, two ships are sailing to the Indo-Pacific and will participate in several military exercises – including the U.S.-led “RIMPAC 2024,” the world’s biggest maritime exercise. For a few months, the ships will also be joined by German Air Force planes. Together with air forces from both Europe and the Indo-Pacific, the German Air Force will participate in a series of joint exercises called “Pacific Skies 24.” Planned ports of call on the tour include Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and India. 

With this deployment, Germany wants to signal to its Indo-Pacific partners that it has not forgotten them, despite its focus being on supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion. This is especially important considering some regional partners, like Japan, have also shown significant amounts of support for Ukraine. 

The first Indo-Pacific deployment was welcomed by partners, and the current deployment will likewise reinforce Germany’s relations with countries in the region. Potentially, the tour could strengthen not just diplomatic but also economic relations between Germany and its partners, thereby contributing to the country’s objective of diversifying economic ties to the region.

Another stated objective of the journey is to secure sea and trade routes. The exact planning of the tour is not yet set. The ships plan to cross through the South China Sea, and transit through the Taiwan Strait is also being considered. However, whether such a passage happens will be decided shortly beforehand, depending on political considerations and the state of the China-Germany relationship. China might interpret a Taiwan Strait transit as a provocation. 

In this year’s Indo-Pacific deployment, Germany wants to show its partners there that it will continue to be present in the region. However, observers should not expect anything too dramatic from this journey, like the German Navy actively challenging Chinese territorial claims. Germany will continue trying to protect its relationship with China. It is unlikely that the Baden-Württemberg or the Frankfurt am Main will traverse contested waters on their tour, be it the South China Sea or anywhere else. While the two ships will keep the option of going through the Taiwan Strait open for now, observers should not be surprised if this transit does not happen. 

With this second deployment, Germany will continue with its challenging Indo-Pacific balancing act.

Christina Keßler is the Clara Marina O’Donnell fellow (2023-24).