For the first time since 2002, Germany is sending a warship on a transit through the West Philippine Sea, in a win for the China hawks in Angela Merkel’s government.
According to CNN, the frigate will follow regular trade routes and will not pass through the Taiwan Strait or within 12 nautical miles of the many natural features in the water that China has claimed and built on.
“That Germany (would) send this frigate under Merkel’s watch is a small miracle and a big achievement for defence minister Kramp-Karrenbauer, who very much pushed for this,” Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, told the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
Germany has joined a growing list of countries sending their navies to the West Philippine Sea. The United States, which conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in contested areas on a regular basis, has been in the forefront of the campaign, alongside France, the United Kingdom, Australia, and, shortly, India.
Despite a 2016 judgement by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, China claims practically the whole 1.3 million square miles of the West Philippine Sea as its own.
The German ship has asked the Chinese authorities for permission to dock in Shanghai, a move that Benner told the SCMP was intended to appease Merkel and SPD parliamentary group head Rolf Mutzenich of the opposition. Both lawmakers were said to be afraid of upsetting China, which is Germany’s largest commercial partner.
There is a chance that Germany would enrage China, as the United Kingdom did last week when it sent its largest warship through disputed seas, prompting Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of China’s state-run Global Times, to call the United Kingdom a “bitch” who was “asking for a beating.”
Yet Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in Beijing, told the Global Times on August 2 that “Unlike the UK… Germany is acting more on behalf of Europe to seek a long-term maritime order and maintain a certain contact with China, but not confrontationally,” adding that the port visit will improve communication, transparency, and mutual trust between China and Germany, according to Wang, who also stated that the frigate would be welcomed.
In a rather contradictory statement, Wang also stated that China may still delay approving the port call because it has to determine Germany’s genuine objectives.
According to Benner, Beijing’s refusal of the Shanghai port call would be “the best possible outcome,” as it would allow Kramp-Karrenbauer and other members of the German government to “express concerns over Beijing’s hegemonic aspirations in the region and its disregard for international law,” as reported by the SCMP.