Why a German Warship Would Head To the Taiwan Strait

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Politico has reported that high-level discussions are underway in Berlin about sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait, following similar U.S. and French excursions that challenged China’s claim to the waterway.  It shows the German establishment is worried about the U.S. perception of Germany as a less than reliable ally and about France’s transparent ambition to be the European Union’s leading military power.

At the same time, the Taiwan plan is clear evidence that Germany doesn’t want to take any risks or invest too much in tackling these issues.

Germany is under constant pressure from the U.S. administration to spend more on defense, but that’s a political impossibility while the Social Democrats are part of the governing coalition: They don’t recognize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 2% spending pledge as reasonable. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are more pro-NATO and pro-U.S. –although they’d like someone other than Donald Trump to be president – but their ability to back up those loyalties with action are limited.

One reason is that German voters are consistently opposed to their country’s participation in any overseas conflicts; about three quarters were against interfering in Syria, for example. The German concept of a “parliamentary army” – one that only intervenes abroad with the parliament’s permission – makes acting against such formidable majorities problematic. If German troops do go overseas, it’s usually on training and support missions. Even in Afghanistan, the only country out of a dozen with German deployments where Germany serves as a lead nation, training Afghan soldiers is the focus of the mission.

Another reason is that the German armed forces face combat readiness problems. Though the Bundeswehr’s inspector general reported to parliament in March that the situation was improving, he admitted that only about 70% of the military’s weapons systems were immediately usable and that difficulties remained with submarines and combat aircraft. Exact numbers of how much of every specific type of military equipment is battle-ready are not being released anymore,  which is somewhat suspicious given alarming reports from previous years. 

The German navy, too, isn’t in the best shape. The story of its lead F125 frigate, the Baden-Wuerttemberg, is a good illustration. The warship was first delivered to the Navy in 2016 but sent back to the shipyard for numerous fixes. It was delivered anew in late April and should be commissioned this month. Existing ships, meanwhile, suffer from frequent spare-part shortages and long repair times. The navy, like the rest of the Bundeswehr, is short on personnel. And it’s not heavily engaged in international operations.  

The Taiwan Strait looks like an ideal setting in which Germany could show that France, which has been investing heavily in its naval power, isn’t the only European country with a large, functional military. In April, a French warship, the frigate Vendemiaire, sailed through the strait. It was tailed and told to leave by the Chinese navy, but it completed the mission, adding the French voice to that of the U.S., which has repeatedly sent ships to the area over the last year. 

Germany could also demonstrate its loyalty to NATO and U.S. interests; for Germany, the South China Sea is not a strategic priority, so if it shows its flag there, it’ll be out of solidarity with allies.

At the same time, Germany wouldn’t be taking on much risk. Though China always voices strong objections when the Western ships pass through the Taiwan Strait, which, along with Taiwan itself, it regards as its own, the probability that a NATO ship will be attacked with deadly force there is low. China has enough on its hands fighting a trade war with the U.S. without adding a military conflict to it. It doesn’t need simultaneous trouble with the EU, either.

Germany has much more of an interest in the safety and sovereignty of Ukraine, a country that aspires to EU membership, than in what happens in the South China Sea. It has an ongoing, though recently neglected, role in mediating Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. But Germany won’t try to send its warships into the Sea of Azov to help free up Ukrainian ports, which are under pressure from the Russian navy. There, the possibility of a deadly clash would be much higher than in the Taiwan Strait.

Still, even symbolic gestures matter. If a German ship does sail to the Taiwan Strait, Germany’s NATO partners shouldn’t dismiss the move as meaningless. Rather, they should see it as a promise that Germany will remain true to its alliances. Just don’t demand too much of it now. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.