German warships are in the South China Sea - should they be?

A renewed interest from European powers in Asia's affairs smacks of neo-colonialism

After the last Nato summit in June, French President Emmanuel Macron had some sensible words about the future scope of the military alliance, whose 30 members are all in Europe apart from Canada and the US. “On China, I think I can say we shouldn’t confuse our goals,” Mr Macron said. “Nato is an organisation that concerns the North Atlantic. China has little to do with the North Atlantic.”

But so far this year France has sent a nuclear attack submarine and a support vessel to conduct a patrol in the South China Sea, whose resource and strategic-rich waters are hotly contested by China and several South-East Asian countries. The UK’s Carrier Strike Group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth recently traversed the same sea en route to Japan, and British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said his government would “permanently assign two ships in the region from later this year”. Now a German navy frigate is on its way, and is expected to cross the South China Sea in December – the first time a German warship has done so for nearly two decades.

What are they all doing there? Well, everyone, it seems, must now have their own “Indo-Pacific strategy”. France released its policy report on the region in 2019, Germany adopted its own guidelines in 2020, and the UK announced its “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific earlier this year. Except, there is no need for any of these countries to issue documents using the words “Indo-Pacific” – which has become, as they know, an increasingly loaded term since it was taken up by the previous US administration under Donald Trump.

It is no longer just an alternative or a geographically extended version of the words that were previously mostly used, the “Asia-Pacific”. It has become shorthand for the view that China must be actively contained, if not confronted, in its own near abroad, by a US-led grouping; and not just the three additional members of the “Quad” – Japan, Australia and India – but any western-inclined democracies who feel like joining in too.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, center, and Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, place their fists together during a trilateral meeting at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka, Japan, on Friday, June 28, 2019. The world's most powerful leaders are gathering in Japan for meetings that may set the direction for the global economy and make the difference between war and peace in geopolitical hotspots. Photographer: Carl Court/Pool via Bloomberg

Countries “from half a world away”, as the Chinese embassy in London described them, have every reason to formulate policies to increase their trade with a region that has become the world’s marketplace, and which they would be advised to call the “Asia-Pacific” instead. But what makes these middling European powers think that it is their right or responsibility to take an assertive stance in long-standing maritime disputes so far from home?

True, the UK has been a member of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, along with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, since 1971; but the low-profile FPDA is not offensive in purpose. France does have a number of overseas possessions in the Indian and Pacific oceans, but they are rather small, and a very long way from the South China Sea. And Germany – well, yes, the question as to what precisely Germany is doing there has vexed many. One Social Democrat MP said it reminded him of Kaiser Wilhelm II's desire that at the turn of the 20th century, Germany should also have its "own place in the sun" to satisfy its desire for overseas empire.

As far back as 2013, Foreign Policy magazine was reporting that the US was “encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports”. Within a few years, there were more than 400. How would Washington react if Beijing had the wish, and the capability, to do the same? Some may argue that there can be no proper analogy. The US has treaty allies in the region, and many countries with claims on the South China Sea are quietly happy for America to speak loudly on their behalf and protest the sanctity of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – whose tribunal ruled against China in 2016 – even though the US has never signed up to it.

The situation is different, however, for the UK, Germany and France, all countries with a history of colonialism in Asia that cannot be defended. Given their past and their geographical distance, they have no moral standing to get involved. It is presumptuous, patronising and smacks of neo-colonialism.

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Given their past and their geographical distance, they have no moral standing to get involved

A collective brutal suppression and looting of the Indian subcontinent, mainland South-East Asia and part of what is now Papua New Guinea, is mostly within living memory. The former imperial powers should consider themselves fortunate that their emissaries are greeted today with such honours, and their merchants and expatriate workers with wide embraces. (On a personal note, one of my young sons could hardly believe it when I told him that the Kuala Lumpur club where he has his tennis lessons wouldn’t have even let his Malay grandparents in under British rule.)

It will also not be lost in Beijing, where memories run deep, that these European states are, as a German commentator put it, "the same predators that enslaved and robbed, murdered and pillaged China during the century of Chinese humiliation".

European states can indeed play a useful role to "help build the capacity of smaller Asian nations to preserve their autonomy and territorial integrity" by a "combination of patient diplomacy and proactive strategic engagement through trade and investment deals" as Richard Javad Heydarian wrote in these pages in April. But he also specifically warned about the dangers of "siding with one superpower against the other".

That is exactly what the UK, France and Germany appear to be doing by sailing their gunships through these troubled waters. Europe should stay out. The situation is tense enough as it is. If needless provocations risk escalation, it will be the peoples of the Asia-Pacific, not Europeans, who will suffer.

Published: August 11th 2021, 4:00 AM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National