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European Powers to Boost Asia Presence to Counter China

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she holds a video news conference with European Council President Charles Michel, centre, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, following a virtual summit with China's President Xi…
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures as she holds a video news conference with European Council President Charles Michel, centre, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, following a virtual summit with China's President Xi…

Germany, France and Britain each plan to boost their military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, a move analysts say is aimed at countering China and showing support for the U.S., Japan and other regional allies.

Germany will send a frigate to patrol Indo-Pacific waters later this year. Britain will deploy the British carrier strike group (CSG) with the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier at its core with no first deployment date announced.

France will join Japan and the U.S. to conduct amphibious training in southwestern Japan in May. The three countries also submitted a joint, unsigned note to the United Nations.

The note emphasized “the importance of unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas” in the South China Sea, according to an op-ed written by Mark Valencia, an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, in China’s Hainan Province, for the South China Morning Post.

According to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies prepared from a survey conducted before the advent of the global pandemic: “China is seen as holding slightly more political power and influence than the United States in Southeast Asia today and considerably more power relative to the United States in 10 years,” and in terms of “economic power and influence, the region views China as much more influential than the United States today, and this gap is expected to grow in the next 10 years.”

'Need to uphold the international order'

Experts say that the European countries boosting their military presence in the Indo-Pacific region will strengthen their alliances with the United States and Japan and maintain common values and rule-based order in the region.

Zachary Hosford, acting director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the European countries “want to signal to the United States that they are aligned with Washington in recognizing both the need to uphold the international order and the Chinese government’s challenges to that order – including through the illegal and destabilizing building of military bases on artificial islands.”

Elli-Katharina Pohlkamp, a visiting fellow of the Asia program at European Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA Mandarin, “I believe alliances and defense cooperation can be strengthened and the interoperability of the forces can be enhanced. The China factor is definitely encouraging the enhancement of security ties between Europe and Japan.” This depends on the Japan’s China policy under recently installed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, which Pohlkamp said “is not very clear yet.”

Steven Lamy, an international relations professor at the University of Southern California said, “They are making sure China knows that they will check any unilateral action that threatens trade and security in Asia.”

Zack Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), however, believes that the European nation’s deployment is primarily symbolic.

“I do think there is concern that the United States is increasingly focused on the Indo-Pacific, so some in Europe want to demonstrate that they can be helpful in Asia, too,” Cooper said. “That is a positive sign, in my view. This has more of a signaling value than a military value, but the message is still a useful one. But I think it is also important to note that the EU-China investment deal is potentially more important as a signal than these military deployments, so we need to make sure that our security and economic efforts are both pointed in the same direction.”

'Values-based trade agenda'

On Dec. 30, the EU and China concluded negotiations on a wide-ranging investment treaty.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said, “Today‘s agreement is an important landmark in our relationship with China and for our values-based trade agenda.

Other objectives

British and German Asia-Pacific deployments have objectives beyond countering China's expansion in the region.

Jamie Shea, a former NATO official and senior fellow at the think tank Friends of Europe, said the U.K.'s actions were intended to show aspirations to be "Global Britain" after Brexit, as its departure from the EU is known.

“This aspiration focuses largely on the Asia-Pacific region as the U.K. is convinced that new trade agreements with the countries in this region are key to the U.K.’s future economic growth,” Shea told VOA. “So a U.K. military capability to project power in the Asia-Pacific, based around the country’s two recently acquired new aircraft carriers, is key to demonstrating the U.K.’s strategic relevance to the region. The Royal Navy is the priority here as ships can be deployed flexibly and are a good way of demonstrating presence.”

Shea added that Britain's defense procurement and its decision to send the HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea also signals to Washington that the U.K. remains willing and able to be a major strategic ally.

While Germany has no desire to be a global military power, it has key economic and trading interests in Asia that it wishes to protect, Shea noted.

“Germany has no desire to become embroiled in the regional disputes in Asia, such as in the South and East China seas, but the occasional dispatch of a frigate and participation in a maritime exercise is a useful way to build confidence and develop partnerships and interoperability with Germany’s major trading partners in the region,” Shea said.

According to Japan's Kyodo News, Japan's defense minister, Nobuo Kishi, last month expressed his desire for German frigates to participate in exercises with Japan's Self-Defense Forces, which he hoped would pass through the South China Sea.

The British government announced on Jan. 4 that the British Royal Navy’s carrier strike group has reached initial operating capability ahead of its first operational deployment later this year.

The carrier strike group commander, Commodore Steve Moorhouse, tweeted Jan. 4, “In practical terms, my Strike Group is now at Very High Readiness, meaning we are at 5 days’ notice to deploy, if required, in response to global events & in defence of British interests.”

In response to the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s deployment to the South China Sea, Tan Kefei, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Defense, said, "The Chinese military will take the necessary measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests and firmly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea."

Adrianna Zhang of the VOA Mandarin Service contributed to this report.