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Saturday, September 18, 2021

What does the end of the Merkel era mean for Southeast Asia?

Analysts say that Germany's government has made a pivot towards Southeast Asia during Merkel's last years in power. Some speculate that the next government could trigger a change in Germany's approach to the region.

By: Deutsche Welle |
Updated: September 15, 2021 8:26:46 pm
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a news conference. (AP/File)

Written by David Hutt

Analysts say that Germany’s government has made a pivot towards Southeast Asia during Merkel’s last years in power. Some speculate that the next government could trigger a change in Germany’s approach to the region.

Germany’s federal elections this month are unlikely to dominate the headlines in Southeast Asia. But experts agree that the outcome of the ballot will be important for the region nevertheless.

The elections mark the end of Merkel’s 16 years as chancellor. Pundits think there is also a chance that the new government will be formed without Merkel’s once-dominant alliance of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), as part of the ruling coalition. Analysts think these factors could indicate a policy shakeup.

Merkel’s legacy in Southeast Asia

Jürgen Rüland, an expert on Southeast Asia at Germany’s University of Freiburg, explained that during Merkel’s 16 years in power, she visited China 12 times. According to Rüland, this pointed to Merkel’s concern with maintaining good relations with Beijing, a key importer of German goods. Comparatively, Merkel visited Southeast Asia on three occasions during the chancellorship.

Additionally, Germany did not sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the key document on cooperation norms for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, until November 2019, Rüland noted. It only became a “development partner” of ASEAN three years ago.

“German interest in Southeast Asia was chiefly confined to economic relations and to some extent to development cooperation,” Rüland added.

However, under Merkel, Germany did make moves to develop ties between the ASEAN bloc and the European Union.

The Nuremberg Declaration on an EU-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership was signed in March 2007, when Germany held the rotating presidency of the EU. Germany’s tenure as EU president in the second half of 2020 saw more progress, such as renewed dialogue over free-trade agreements, following the ratification of trade pacts with Singapore and Vietnam.

Later, in December 2020, ASEAN and the EU upgraded their ties to a “strategic partnership,” for which Brussels has lobbied for years.

This was a “core aim” of Germany during its tenure as EU president, said Alfred Gerstl, a specialist on international relations in Southeast Asia at the Palacky University in the Czech Republic.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to waiting journalists after her visit to the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (AP Photo)

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who took the lead in the final stages of talks, stated at the time: “Together, we represent more than a billion people and almost 25% of global economic power. Together, we have a strong voice in this world.”

Germany’s late pivot towards Southeast Asia

In September 2020, Berlin published its “Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific.” While symbolically not named a “strategy,” the guidelines cast uncharacteristic skepticism on China’s rise and signaled a tip-toed pivot by Berlin towards Southeast Asia. This was despite Germany’s dependence on its exports to Chinese markets.

“Without blaming China, Germany shares Southeast Asian concerns about Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in and beyond the region,” said Rüland.

“The guidelines explicitly endorse ASEAN centrality as a norm provider for the region, and the grouping’s search for a peaceful accommodation of intensifying great power tensions in Southeast Asia,” Rüland added.

In August 2021, Germany sent a frigate to the contested South China Sea as part of a freedom of navigation exercise. It was the first time Germany had sent a warship to the South China Sea since 2002, before Merkel’s chancellorship.

Some experts believe that Germany is neither a tested geopolitical actor in Southeast Asia nor does it boast the military prowess to take an active role in the region’s security intBut a number of academics argue that Germany’s nuanced brand of foreign policy and diplomatic language remains appealing to the Southeast Asian governments that now find themselves pincered in the US-China rivalry.

“The nuanced German entry into the Indo-Pacific is music to ASEAN’s diplomatic ears,” wrote Alan Chong and Frederick Kliem, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“It is perhaps no coincidence that Berlin’s ‘guidelines’ describe something akin to an ‘ASEAN Peace’ dominating the Indo-Pacific, characterized mostly by domestic stability and almost non-existent interstate ‘hot wars’,” he explained.

What’s next for German-ASEAN relations, post-Merkel?

The latest opinion polls give the lead to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior partner in Merkel’s current coalition. Merkel’s own party, the CDU and CSU alliance, has seen its popularity fade over recent months. The Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party are also performing strongly. Given Germany’s electoral rules, a ruling coalition is the likely outcome, although pundits are still debating its possible composition.

There could be some minor changes to German policy in Southeast Asia. But this depends on the composition of the new government post-election, said Gerstl, of Palacky University.

“The more China-critical the new coalition government will be, the more will ASEAN’s strategic importance raise for Germany,” Gerstl said. He referred to a notable increase in anti-Beijing rhetoric by politicians across Germany’s political spectrum over the past twelve months.

This would especially be the case if the Greens, the most China-critical party in Germany, joins a coalition government, which many analysts expect it will, Gerstl explained.

But due to the Greens strong focus on a human rights-led foreign policy, Germany’s relations with the likes of Vietnam and Myanmar could suffer as a result, Gerstl said.

Meanwhile, Rüland from the University of Freiburg expressed that the next German government may also back the reallocation supply chains away from China; a trend being carried out by governments worldwide and exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

“This may result in an increasing diversification of [German] foreign direct investments and a reallocation of production lines from China to Southeast Asia,” Rüland said.

Despite these possibilities, continuity will likely be the word of the day, especially if Armin Laschet, the candidate for Merkel’s Union alliance, becomes chancellor, Gerstl said.

As it looks likely that the SPD will stay in power, Heiko Maas, the current foreign minister, could remain in the post, providing yet more continuity, Gerstl added.

Analysts are united in that a major rethink in Berlin of Germany’s foreign policy objectives in the Indo-Pacific looks unlikely. Most political voices in Berlin are content to continue the gradual evolution of better relations in regions like Southeast Asia. “For Germans, Southeast Asia remains a remote region,” said Rüland. “Developing expertise on the region is neither a priority for the country’s universities nor its think tanks.”

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