Germany has deployed a frigate to the contested South China Sea for the first time since 2002, becoming the latest US ally to engage in such provocative deployments to the Chinese-claimed waters.
The Bayern frigate took off on Monday with more than 200 soldiers on board on a seven-month voyage and is expected to travel to Australia, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam. It is scheduled to pass through the South China Sea by mid-December.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer attended the departure ceremony at the naval base of Wilhelmshaven.
Kramp-Karrenbauer said ahead of the ship’s departure, “The message is clear: we are standing up for our values and interests together with our partners and allies.”
China claims most of the South China Sea and has set up military outposts on artificial islands to protect its interests. However, some other regional countries dispute the Chinese claims. The United States and some of its Western allies, which take sides with China’s rival claimants, regularly conduct “freedom of navigation” operations in defiance of Beijing.
“We want existing law to be respected, sea routes to be freely navigable, open societies to be protected, and trade to follow fair rules,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
Still, German officials have insisted that the ship’s mission is not directed against any particular country. The German defense minister has also insisted that the warship will not sail through the Taiwan Strait — another focal point of tensions with China — and will move on common trade routes and has also offered to visit a Chinese harbor “in order to maintain dialog.”
China and Germany hold strong economic ties. Beijing is considered Berlin’s most important trading partner. But the deployment of the warship to the contested South China Sea, which replicates provocative missions by the United States, can potentially affect ties.
Earlier, a British strike group entered the South China Sea, drawing a strong rebuke from Beijing.
The German frigate will take part in the European Union (EU)’s anti-piracy Atalanta mission in East Africa, while also joining the United Nations (UN)’s maritime embargo of North Korea.