Germany in the Island Dispute (II)

BERLIN | | china

BERLIN (Own report) - In light of escalating tensions in the maritime areas off the Chinese coast, German foreign policy experts are analyzing the divers interests at stake and possibilities for intervention. At the heart of the conflicts, particularly in the East China Sea, are military options, according to a German think tank. China, in the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, is concentrating on its defense capability against potential aggressors. According to the naval publication "MarineForum," maritime trade routes through the South China Sea are of major interest. This is where China, for example, is transiting 80 percent of its oil and liquid gas imports. This is why the Spratly islands - apart from their own oil deposits - are of significant strategic importance. To the question of how the EU would react should a war start in East Asia - provoked, for example, by a dispute over any of the groups of islands - an associate of the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK) answered that, unlike London and Paris, Berlin would currently not have the capability to intervene, which is why Germany should seek to establish a naval base in the Indian Ocean.

Block Access

Recently, German experts and think tanks have repeatedly focused on the interests underlying the escalating disputes over various islands and island groups in the East and South China Seas, claimed by the People's Republic of China and several other countries. They see strategic military aspects at the heart of the Sino-Japanese dispute over the "Diaoyu" (Chinese) / "Senkaku" (Japanese) islands. These islands are part of a chain of islands off the Chinese coastline, whose control has far-reaching consequences. If China has control, Beijing can use them in its defense against foreign naval aggression. If Japan has control, Tokyo could "block China's access to the Pacific," writes the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA).[1] The East China Sea's Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are, therefore, of significant importance in the West's hegemonic power struggle against China.

Block Imports

The current issue of the naval publication "MarineForum" describes the interests underlying the conflict over groups of islands in the South China Sea. In the publication, a former lecturer at Germany's Armed Forces Staff College points out that China's most important maritime trade routes pass through the South China Sea and then through the Straits of Malacca, a narrow waterway between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. 35 percent of all Chinese imports of ore and 80 percent of its energy imports transit through the Straits of Malacca, notes "MarineForum." "Disturbances in this area would have a direct impact on the Chinese economy."[2] The possibilities to transit via other routes are very limited. Transit to Chinese ports by the nearby Sunda Strait would prolong each trip by two days and increase annual costs by about US $8 billion. The Sunda Strait could, in fact, be blocked just as easily as the more distant Lombok Strait, east of Java. In anticipation of a power struggle with the West, Beijing had focused, already years ago, discussion on the "Malacca problem" and, seeking to reduce China's vulnerability, forged ahead with the construction of a transport corridor through Myanmar. ( reported [3]).

Tiny but Important

Just as important as transit through the Straits of Malacca, is the maritime transport through the South China Seas, through which nearly one third of China's global petroleum trade and commodities worth more than US $5 billion are currently being transited. Control over the Paracel and the Spratly Islands is gaining in significance. The journal "Marine Forum" provides details about the role played by the Spratly Islands. These are essentially little more than "a collection of several hundred rifts, atolls, sand banks, small and tiny islands," scattered out over a maritime region as large as California, but totaling a mere 5 sq. miles "of island territory at high tide," with "the highest point at a mere 4 meters above sea level." The area can be safely navigated, thanks to GPS, which saves time and expenses. "Up to 300 supertankers, bulk carriers and giant container vessels" make their way daily through the Spratly Islands.[4] In US media, the importance of control over this South China Sea island group is candidly explained. By operating naval forces across the South China Sea, Beijing "can gain greater confidence that the United States will not be able to disrupt its supplies."[5]

Not Operational

Whereas, according the "Washington Post," the United States should increase its naval presence against Beijing in the South China Seas, German foreign policy experts are reflecting on what could happen, if there should be war in East Asia - for example over the disputed island groups. According to Felix Seidler, an associate of the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK), this is "a very unpleasant, but not an unthinkable scenario." In such a case, Great Britain would be operational - its fleet regularly operates in the Indian Ocean and has recently proven that it can intervene in Southeast Asia, when it dispatched warships to the Philippines on a disaster relief mission. France maintains naval bases in all three oceans - some in its oversees territories - and therefore, even if currently weakened, it too, in principle, is operational. The German Navy, on the other hand, lacks these capabilities.[6]

German Indian Ocean Base

A while back, Seidler was already calling on Germany to obtain access to an Indian Ocean base, to rectify this deficit. With their operations at the Horn of Africa, Germany has long since established an Indian Ocean naval presence. Incorporated in US Navy Carrier Strike Groups,[7] German naval vessels have also cruised for months in the Arabian Sea. A German Navy combat unit logistical support vessel was dispatched to Indonesia on a disaster relief mission, in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami. There is also experience from naval operations in Southeast Asia. Seidler pleads in favor of establishing a permanent German naval presence in the Indian Ocean at the USA's Diego Garcia base. This could serve in implementing German "core interests," which stretch all the way "to East Asia."[8] Even though these demands have not yet found support in operative German government policies, they do indicate the direction the debate in Berlin's foreign policy establishment is headed, in light of the intensification of the West's hegemonic struggle with China.

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] Oliver Müsa, Anna Yumi Pohl, Nadine Godehardt: Inselstreit zwischen Japan und China gefährdet die regionale Stabilität in Ostasien, GIGA Focus Asien Nummer 12/2012. S. dazu Deutschland im Inselstreit.
[2] Joachim Schmidt: Sicherheitsrisiken in Süd-Ost-Asien. Von Singapur bis Spratly Islands. MarineForum 6/2014.
[3] See The Military's Deal with the West.
[4] Joachim Schmidt: Sicherheitsrisiken in Süd-Ost-Asien. Von Singapur bis Spratly Islands. MarineForum 6/2014.
[5] Elizabeth Economy, Michael Levi: Beijing's actions in the South China Sea demand a U.S. response. 16.05.2014.
[6] Felix Seidler: Germany Needs a Permanent Naval Presence in the Indian Ocean. 07.11.2013.
[7] See Begleitschutz für Flugzeugträger, Zones of Future Conflicts and Die Perspektive 2030.
[8] Felix Seidler: Germany Needs a Permanent Naval Presence in the Indian Ocean. 07.11.2013.