German navy supply vessel A1411 Berlin is moored during the opening parade of the 830th port anniversary in Hamburg in May. Photo: EPA-EFE

Germany may join US in opposing China by sending warship through Taiwan Strait, breaking decades of military non-confrontation

  • Beijing claims the body of water, but the West regards it as an international waterway
  • US sent two destroyers into strait in April to demonstrate ‘commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific’

This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by John Vinocur on on June 5, 2019.

Germany is considering a break from decades of military non-confrontation.

High ranking officials are contemplating sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait – joining the United States and France in challenging Beijing’s claims to what the West regards as an international waterway.

If Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government actually goes ahead, it will be a remarkable revision of its we-keep-out-of-conflict reflexes. Germany will be openly backing its allies in a strategy certain to be found provocative by the country’s enforcers of non-combatant passivity.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes part in a disussion at an event in Frankfurt am Main on Wednesday. Photo: AFP

Recent examples of Germany’s reluctance to engage include the withdrawal of its navy from the combat zone during the West’s Libyan intervention in 2011, caveats on its troop deployments in Afghanistan and its decision not to participate directly in attacks on Islamic State forces in Syria – unlike its Nato neighbours Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and France.

A German official informed me of the Taiwan Strait plan last month. Last week, a second German official, at my request, confirmed its discussion by the defence ministry. No firm decision was expected before the end of the summer.

The strait in question is the body of water between China and Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be its territorial zone. When a French frigate transited in April, it was shadowed by Chinese military and warned to leave. Beijing said it made “stern representations” to Paris about the vessel’s “illegal” passage.

Later that month, the United States sent two destroyers into the strait “demonstrating the US’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”, according to an American spokesman.

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The US has prioritised countering China’s military rise since the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency. France, for its part, has seized every possibility to underscore its identity as a global, nuclear-armed interventionist and potential American wingman.

Why would Germany get involved? Some elements in Merkel’s government see a double opportunity, given Berlin’s lousy relations with US President Donald Trump and wide disrespect elsewhere for its hide-under-the-bed routine.

It certainly would not hurt to back up the US at a time when Washington has suspended threats of tariffs for six months on imported German cars.

The naval mission would also be an opportunity to show up France, which likes to portray itself as the European Union’s sole functional military power and which has responded to Merkel’s opposition to most of President Emmanuel Macron’s reform proposals for the EU by becoming one of Germany’s sharpest critics.

The guided-missile destroyer USS William P Lawrence practices ship maneuvers as it transits the Pacific Ocean in June 2018. Photo: US Navy via Reuters

France has just spent two years and €1.3 billion (US$1.46 billion) to refurbish its atomic-powered carrier, the Charles de Gaulle. French generals have accused Berlin of running a “non-combat” army. Macron himself has said that Germany’s growth model, based on profiting from imbalances in the euro zone, is at an end.

His openness has emboldened French commentators to pick up the now authorised lash. Zaki Laidi, a professor at Sciences Po, the French political science university, wrote last month that Merkel “has done absolutely nothing’’ to change Germany’s role as a rich global bystander protected by America.

The question now is whether the government, faced with deepening political weakness at home, will challenge that portrayal and actually follow through with the plan for projecting power.

Harvard cheers as Angela Merkel takes aim at Trump’s politics

The signs are not overwhelmingly promising. Merkel’s apparent valedictory speech at the Harvard University commencement last week was a time warp moment – a pretend flashback to a time when Germany was the uncontested European leader, bathing in cash, moderation and the overdrawn favour of Obama.

In reality, Germany is politically riven to the edge of instability. Its economic prospects are dim. Merkel’s paralytic coalition with the Social Democrats has “cave-in” scrawled all over it two years before she is expected to leave office in 2021.

Polls over the weekend measured the depth of Germany’s cracks.

A tugboat escorts French Navy frigate Vendemiaire on arrival for a goodwill visit at a port in Metro Manila, Philippines in March 2018. Photo: Reuters

For the first time since the Green Party became a player in the early 1980s, the environmentalist movement surpassed Merkel’s Christian Democrats in a projection of national election results. The Social Democrats sank to a historical low, just a point ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany.

Economically, what Merkel once called Germany’s “Beacon to the World” keeps flashing dimmer shades of yellow. The German Chamber of Commerce and Industry reports that gross domestic product growth will fall to 0.6 per cent this year, with little prospect for improvement in 2020.

Worse still: the chancellor’s chosen successor, CDU party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is failing in her job preparation. A poll last week showed that 70 per cent of the Germans think she is not up to the task.

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Among her ideas: a “symbolic project” for Germany and France to jointly build an aircraft carrier to demonstrate the EU’s role as a “security and peace power” – without detailing its mission. Forced to deal with her protege’s fantasy, while refusing herself to meet Nato’s spending targets, Merkel has been cornered into saying “it’s right and good”.

In this context, launching a naval in-your-face operation off the coast of Taiwan would constitute a groundbreaking but unfamiliar act of valour.

Admirably, there are German officials who want to combat the notion that the country is an irresponsible and non-committal ally. More power to them. The place to do that is the international waters of the Taiwan Strait. Now, the German navy needs to get that far.

John Vinocur was executive editor and vice-president of the International Herald Tribune