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German Warship Deployed in South China Sea, First Time in Two Decades

Jonathan Walker
Jonathan loves talking politics, economics and philosophy. He carries unique perspectives on everything making him a rather odd mix of liberal-conservative with a streak of independent Austrian thought.
Published: December 18, 2021
Bayern is the first German warship to be sent to the South China Sea in 20 years.
Bayern is the first German warship to be sent to the South China Sea in 20 years. (Image: sunu_dhadho via Pixabay)

On Dec.15, a German warship sailed through the contentious South China Sea for the first time in around 20 years. By doing so, Germany joined other Western nations like the United States and the United Kingdom in trying to assert its military presence in the region to counter the aggressive expansionism of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The Bayern frigate had requested to make a port call at Shanghai back in September. But Chinese authorities rejected the request. The warship has 230 crew onboard. Between Dec. 9 and 11, the frigate sailed in a circular pattern in the waters of the Taiwan Strait that separates the Chinese mainland and the island of Taiwan. While making its journey via the South China Sea, the frigate kept itself clear off the Strait.

Despite this, the move to sail a warship through South China Sea waters still represents Germany’s willingness to challenge Beijing’s unlawful territorial claims. The Chinese regime claims the entire South China Sea as its own even though an international tribunal had rejected such assertions. Beijing is even building artificial islands in the waters to strengthen its territorial claim in the South China Sea.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean that Germany changed its policy… But driven by the increasing assertiveness of China, the situation in the region changed. So we had to adapt our strategy… In all my Asian years with assignments in China, Malaysia, Philippines, Myanmar, and Vietnam, I have not observed such a dangerous situation in the region,” Christian-Ludwig Weber-Lortsch, former German ambassador to several key Southeast Asian countries, told Radio Free Asia (RFA).

According to Germany’s armed forces, the Bayern’s deployment is one intended to test “diplomacy and security policy.” It is about demonstrating that Germany will “stand by its international partners” when it comes to upholding international law and protecting the freedom of sea routes. 

Back in September, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian had called the deployment of Bayern to the South China Sea as being intended to “flex muscles and stir up trouble,” deliberately triggering maritime disputes.  

An article published by CCP-backed Global Times on Dec. 16 sought to underplay Bayern’s journey through the South China Sea, insisting that it was about Germany seeking more attention from China. “If current international affairs are a big banquet, then I would compare this matter to a piece of soybean among many exquisite dishes,” the article reads.

In November, Vice Adm. Kay-Achim Schonbach, the chief of the German Navy, had stated that his country was worried about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The dispatch of Bayern is to show support for its partners like the United States and Japan, joining their efforts to maintain a rules-based international order.

“The South China Sea is a global common, that is, a sea area that belongs to everyone, so it cannot be taken possession of or claimed by anyone if … we abide by the international world order,” Schonbach said at a news conference.

The Bayern’s dispatch comes as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea in a policy speech on Dec. 16. He pledged that the United States will advance a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

“We’re determined to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s aggressive actions there threaten the movement of more than $3 trillion worth of commerce every year… It’s worth remembering that, tied up in that colossal number, $3 trillion, are the actual livelihoods and well-being of millions of people across the world,” Blinken stated.