Germany in the Island Dispute


BERLIN/WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Own report) - Despite escalating tensions in East Asia, German companies have announced new arms exports to Western allies in China's vicinity. Kiel's HGW shipbuilding company has confirmed its decision to sell two submarines to Singapore. In the island disputes in eastern and southeastern Asia, Singapore is seen as one of the West's reliable partners. The current territorial disputes over the archipelago known as the "Diaoyu Islands" (in China) and the "Senkaku Islands" (in Japan), which are claimed by both countries, gives an indication of the conflicts emerging in the region. Interest in these islands is based not so much on their resources but rather on conflicting geo-strategic interests: These Islands are part of a chain of islands Beijing considers an important defense against possible aggression. Berlin is observing these tensions with apprehension because they could threaten German business interests. German arms exports to the region, as well as the Bundeswehr's growing cooperation with Japan, South Korea and other Western allies, are an indication that, in the case of an escalation of conflict, Germany would take sides - against China.

China's First Air Defense Zone

Tension is persisting between China and Japan in the current territorial dispute. On November 23, Beijing announced the creation of an "Air Defense Identification Zone" (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. This is common practice. Japan and South Korea also have air defense zones in the region. But China's first ADIZ is particularly significant, because it includes the airspace over the disputed archipelago. Not recognizing this ADIZ, Tokyo, sent military aircraft through the zone without notification. The United States and South Korea have done likewise. China reacted, by placing its Air Force on alert. This dispute dominates US Vice-President Joe Biden's talks during his current visit to East Asia.

The Allies' Decisions

In a recent publication of the CSU-affiliated Hanns Seidel Foundation, the political scientist Shaosheng Tang presented his views on the application of international law in the dispute over the group of islands known as the "Diaoyu Islands" in China and the "Senkaku Islands" in Japan. Neither Tang, who works in Taipei (Taiwan), nor the CSU-affiliated Seidel foundation can be suspected of harboring sympathies for the People's Republic of China. Tang explains that the archipelago had belonged to China already under the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) and was annexed by Japan only in 1895, following China's defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war (1894/95). As a consequence of Japan's aggressions in WW II, Tokyo had to return territories it had conquered - as did Germany. Tang pointed out that the relevant provisions can be found in the "Cairo Declaration" (November 27, 1943) and the Potsdam Declaration (July 26, 1945). China still invokes the Allies' decisions, whereas Japan simply does not recognize them.[1]

First Island Chain

Beyond this international legal aspect, the islands are particularly important because of their geo-strategic aspect and less because of the abundance of fish in their waters and oil and gas deposits in their vicinity. According to the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), the islands, "situated half way" between China and Japan are of "crucial geo-strategic importance," because from these islands "large sectors of the maritime routes can be controlled, through which nearly 90 percent of China's and Japan's oil and gas supplies are transported." In China's security doctrine, the archipelago is also playing "a central role in its concept of 'First Island Chain' off the Chinese mainland," which should serve as "a sort of maritime early warning system" against foreign aggression. "Japan's sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands would not only break the 'First Island Chain' but also obstruct China's access to the Pacific," according to GIGA.[2] The economic and political consequences for the People's Republic are evident.

Repercussions on Germany

The current escalation, which, for the first time, openly demonstrates the conflict's military potential, has various repercussions on German interests - first of all at the economic level. "If there is an explosion somewhere in the region (...) it would have grave repercussions on German business," explains Gudrun Wacker, an expert on China in the Berlin Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP): After all, trade between Europe and China is entirely conducted "via these shipping lanes."[3] Because of China's enormous economic importance, some forces within German industry as well as some foreign policy strategists are pleading for closer cooperation with the People's Republic.[4] These tensions do not suit them at all. And the measures aimed at "containing" China's emergence, which were recently initiated by Berlin and its western allies, are threatening to develop their own momentum.

Military and Arms Cooperation

The German government not only has begun accelerating its economic and political cooperation with various South East Asian countries. As the recent submarine deal with Singapore indicates,[5] it is also intensifying its military, defense policy and arms cooperation.[6] The same goes for the cooperation with Japan. Last year, Berlin approved 13 million Euros worth of arms exports to Japan. It is also intensifying its cooperation with the Japanese armed forces. ( reported.[7]) Recently, German government advisors have explicitly appealed for closer cooperation between Tokyo and NATO, including Germany.[8] As the government's arms exports reports show, South Korea is nearly always among the top 10 customer countries for German armament - in any case since 1999, when the first official report was published. In 2002 and 2008 it achieved first place, even ahead of the USA. The Bundeswehr is, of course, also closely cooperating with South Korea - in various fields, from the air force to the navy.

Party to the Conflict

Even though South Korea has its own disputes with Japan and, because of earlier aggression, views Tokyo's policy with considerable skepticism, it has now made it clear that it sides with the western war alliance and Japan in the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands. In case this conflict escalates - something both sides do not want but something that could happen at any time through an unintentional collision of fighter jets - three of Berlin's close allies would take a hostile position toward Beijing. In such a conflict constellation, Berlin would most likely take sides with its allies Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.

Additional reports and background material on the theme of German policy toward China can be found here: A Ring of Fire around China, Maritime Arms Race, Smash China (II), A Ring of Fire Around China (II), China's Lifelines (I), Zones of Future Conflicts and The Thucydides Trap.

[1] Shaosheng Tang: Der Streit um die Diaoyutai-/Senkaku-Inseln, in: Politische Studien Nr. 451, September/Oktober 2013. See also Between the USA and China
[2] Oliver Müsa, Anna Yumi Pohl, Nadine Godehardt: Inselstreit zwischen Japan und China gefährdet die regionale Stabilität in Ostasien, GIGA Focus Asien Nummer 12/2012
[3] "China hat kein Interesse an einem Krieg"; 28.11.2013
[4] see also Gestalten statt verhindern, Im Dialogmodus, Germany's New Role and Exports at Risk
[5] Milliarden-Auftrag aus Singapur; Kieler Nachrichten 03.12.2013
[6] see also In China's Zone of Influence (I), Die Pax Pacifica (II) and Die Pax Pacifica (III)
[7] see also Bündnis mit Tradition
[8] see also Zwischen den USA und China