New Delhi: German Navy chief Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach has said his country and India will now engage more deeply in defence and security, in order to address the China challenge in the Indo-Pacific, where Beijing is expanding its sphere of influence with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Schonbach, who is visiting India along with the German warship ‘Bayern’, which made a rare port call in Mumbai Friday, said Germany is sending warships into the Indo-Pacific region because it supports a rules-based international order.
He was delivering a talk on ‘Germany’s Indo-Pacific Strategy’ at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
“China is not that nice country that we thought of. Germany, since 1945, (and) especially since its unification, believed in (like the Chinese) sense of harmony,” he said. He added that India’s policy of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) is very similar to China’s, but Beijing had a “hidden agenda”.
On Germany selling sensitive goods, including those in the military category, to China, the Schonbach said that is done only when his country’s government ensures that those goods or technology will be used both for military as well as civilian purposes. But, he said, owing to China’s behaviour, there are going to be “winds of change”.
Enumerating Germany’s intentions and experiences gained in the Indo-Pacific region, he said Berlin is aware that “China has built artificial islands in the South China Sea … Russia threatens its neighbours with military force to prevent them from leaving the Russian sphere of influence”, and hence, even Berlin is now compelled to send “warships to the Indo-Pacific as a commitment of engagement in support of rules-based international order and freedom of navigation”.
After his comments started making the headlines, Schonbach issued a clarification on his official Twitter handle, saying these were his personal thoughts and it was a “mistake” to express them.
“My security policy statements in a talk show at a think tank in India gave my personal opinion for that moment on the spot. They do not correspond in any way to the official position of the @BMVg_Bundeswehr. #deutschemarine,” he tweeted, referring to the German ministry of defence’s handle.
Meine sicherheitspolitischen Äußerungen in einer Talkrunde eines Think Tanks in Indien gaben meine persönliche Meinung für diesen Moment vor Ort wieder. Sie entsprechen in keinster Weise der offiziellen Position des @BMVg_Bundeswehr. #deutschemarine
— chiefdeunavy (@chiefdeunavy) January 22, 2022
“Carelessly, misjudged in the situation, I shouldn’t have done it like that. There is nothing to interpret, that was a clear mistake. @BMVg_Bundeswehr #deutschemarine,” he added.
— chiefdeunavy (@chiefdeunavy) January 22, 2022
Global security situation ‘volatile’
Highlighting Germany’s foreign policy guidelines under the new Olaf Scholz regime, Schonbach said the global security situation had become “volatile”, and thus, the country will “step up its security and defence engagement” in the Indo-Pacific region. “This (the Indo-Pacific region) is where the future international order will be shaped,” he said.
“When we’re talking about systemic rivalry or peer competitor…it’s very optimistic. I’m not scared to say how China acts as an enemy to many countries, not probably to ours. The first step is that we accept what China is really doing,” he said, in response to questions asked by the audience during the event.
The Vice-Admiral also said that his country favours open shipping routes, open markets and free trade, but at the same time also supports digitisation, connectivity and human rights.
The deployment of the warship Bayern is intended to reinforce the security aspect of Germany’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific, he added. Bayern made its one-day port call to Mumbai in an effort to ascertain Germany’s vision of the Indo-Pacific region, in which it considers India as a key strategic partner.
He said both Germany and India should explore avenues to strengthen naval cooperation and enhance strategic engagement, and underscored that China’s assertive behaviour has put pressure upon the international order.
‘China giving money to dictators, killers, criminals’
He also said while democracies around this region are coming together against China, “running a democracy is not easy … In democracies, we have to work not on the facts, not on the serious issues, we have to approach the hearts… not the minds but hearts of the people, so that they follow us”.
However, he said, China is winning people’s confidence today with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and it is able to do so in poorer countries even though they are coming under debt.
“So, I believe, we have to do more… China is giving money to dictators, killers, criminals as long as they give the resources to China,” he said. “Who is working at the infrastructure? Chinese workers. Who is controlling those infrastructures? Chinese. Who is installing CCTV cameras for controlling societies? It’s China.”
He stressed India and Germany, both being democracies, need to have a “better understanding of each other” in order to “reach a common ground”, adding that both countries are now willing to engage more deeply in the military sphere and there is going to be an exchange of personnel.
‘We need Russia against China’
Speaking on the issue of Russia’s plan to invade Ukraine, the German navy chief said, Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing this to “split” Europe.
“Is Russia really interested in having a small tiny strip of Ukraine soil and integrating with that country? No. This is nonsense. I think Putin is probably putting pressure on that because he can do it and he knows it splits the European Union. But (what) he really wants is respect,” he said.
“Giving some respect is low cost, even no cost,” he said, underlining that Putin, not just “demands but probably also deserves” respect.
“Russia in an old country. Russia is an important country. Even we (India and Germany) need Russia. Because we need Russia against China,” he added.
He said although he is a Roman Catholic and a believer in Christianity and Putin is an atheist and Russia not a democracy, “it is easy” to give respect to Russia as a bilateral partner, to keep it “away from China because China needs resources of Russia.”
‘There will be a war in one or two decades’
Speaking on India’s bilateral partnerships with several countries, the German navy chief said, “One thing I have learnt from European history is that bilateral partnerships mean nothing. If it comes to war, and it comes to a continental war, and I think, I believe there will be a war, probably not in the next 2-3 years but in the next one or two decades, there will be war. However long it looks like, partnerships, in the end, mean nothing.”
“There must be closer alliances,” he said, adding that the new government in Germany will continue to trade with China, but more and more riders will be put on that.
(Edited by Manoj Ramachandran)
This report has been updated to include Vice Admiral Schonbach’s clarification issued Saturday evening.