First German-Chinese Video Symposium: Indo-Pacific Security Challenges

September 17, 2020

Central to the First Chinese-German Video Symposium between Global Bridges and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS) were the security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, exemplified by such issues as the South China Sea territorial dispute, arms control, and great power rivalry. As was mentioned in the “Policy Guidelines on the Indo-Pacific Region” by the German Foreign Office, the key to shaping international order is the Indo-Pacific, and so the conference was regarded by all sides to be one of great importance for present and future.

On the German side, the guest speakers were Professor Dr. Joachim Krause, Director of the Institute for Security Politics at the University of Kiel (ISPK), Brigadier General (ret.) Rainer Meyer zum Felde, Senior Fellow at the ISPK, and Petra Sigmund, Director General for Asia and the Pacific at the German Foreign Office. On the Chinese side, we were grateful to welcome our old friend Major General (ret.) XU Nanfeng, Vice Chairman of CIISS, as well as retired Senior Colonels MU Changlin, CHEN Fangming, CHEN Wei, YU Hanmin, and BAI Zonglin, all of whom are senior research fellows at CIISS.

Dr. Theo Sommer, former editor-in-chief and publisher of DIE ZEIT, moderated the symposium. On behalf of Global Bridges, Dr. Beate Lindemann, and Dr. Hans Albrecht, Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board, respectively, participated in the conference.

First Topic

How to manage the security dilemma and great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region

Senior Colonel (ret.) CHEN Wei introduced the first section of the conference regarding the security dilemma and great power rivalry. Mentioning the great impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he remarked that the world was at a crossroads. The problems it was facing today were due to a lack of global governance, which the pandemic counter-productively exacerbated. The US are uninterested in fostering global governance, according to Wei. China’s security concept, however, focuses on cooperation, openness, and innovation. China is aiming at creating a new system of international relations, which would help overcome the central problem of the security dilemma: mistrust. Addressing Europe, Wei suggested that China could be a partner, might be a competitor, but should not be identified as a systemic rival.

Brigadier General (ret.) Rainer Meyer zum Felde mentioned the indispensable role of the US for European security and stressed that what happens in the Indo-Pacific has serious repercussions for Europe. In his view, the decline of US troop numbers in Europe, caused by the buildup of US forces in the Indo-Pacific, opens up Europe to threats from Russia. In addition, he views China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) as a threat to Europe’s logistic and strategic capabilities, which, along with intensified Chinese-Russian military cooperation, leads to an intensified suspicion towards China’s intentions by Europe. Lastly, he warned that a joint European naval presence in the South China Sea might be unavoidable if dialogue with the US is not initiated and tensions persist.

In the following discussion, the topic of mistrust towards Chinese intentions, especially with respect to the BRI and the Chinese rejection of the arbitration of the South China Sea dispute in 2016, was brought up again. The Chinese side responded by saying that China was merely trying to share its wealth with the rest of the world through the BRI, and that no state would be forced to join the initiative. Additionally, it was stressed that the BRI was urgently needed, especially in Southeast Asia, and that China was merely providing a service which Western companies were unwilling to do. The German side responded, that the mistrust towards China was partly due to the fact that a new, separate community was forming within the BRI. Still, the reliability of China, when compared with the US and the UK, was highlighted positively.

Second Topic

Nuclear disarmament and arms control

In the second part of the symposium, Professor Dr. Joachim Krause introduced the topic by listing the successes of the various arms control treaties during and after the Cold War and stressed, that while he does not believe nuclear disarmament to be a realistic goal for the foreseeable future, arms control treaties can be effective in the de-escalation of conflicts. He then went on to say that while a comprehensive treaty to de-escalate the dispute in the South China Sea was unlikely due to both sides not being ready to give in, some kind of negotiation could still be attempted. Otherwise, the fear of Chinese aggression might instigate states such as South Korea or Japan to develop nuclear weapons. Regarding the US demands for China to join the START treaty, Krause stated that while he understood the Chinese stance on not joining due to their significantly smaller nuclear stockpiles, he nevertheless recommended a closer involvement with the negotiations about strategic delivery systems and nuclear warheads.

The speaker for the Chinese side, Senior Colonel (ret.) MU Changlin, further explained the Chinese point of view on the START negotiations and insisted that the US demands were “neither fair nor reasonable”. He also pointed to China’s willingness to sign no-first-use agreements with the US and to prior Chinese attempts to ban nuclear weapons via a world summit. While he congratulated Europe on its engagement for arms control, he reiterated that China is a staunch proponent of comprehensive global arms control and has played an active role in that field.

Third Topic

The South China Sea issue

Senior Colonel (ret.) CHEN Fangming introduced the third topic by underlining the historical claim of China on most of the South China Sea. He claimed that China was the first to explore, exploit, and exercise sovereignty over several archipelagos in the South China Sea. According to the Chinese position, China has a well-founded claim. He explained that the Spratly and Paracel islands were confirmed to be Chinese possessions in 1946 by the US while negotiating with Chiang Kai-Shek’s Republic of China, the entire territory of which the People’s Republic of China now claims. Regarding the 2016 arbitration of the South China Sea dispute, he stressed that China could not accept an arbitration to which the state party had not agreed beforehand.

Petra Sigmund, Director General for Asia and the Pacific at the German Foreign Office, represented the German Position by stressing the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe, mentioning the vital cooperation with regional partners and the highly important shipping lanes located there, such as the Straits of Malacca. With regard to the previous speaker’s claim, she pointed out that China had signed UNCLOS, that the dispute had been arbitrated according to UNCLOS, and that therefore China had to accept the decision of the tribunal. Stressing that multilateralism sometimes means “accepting…the findings of multilateral institutions, even if, in certain instances, this might be against you”, she also criticised the militarisation of the South China Sea islands by China, which in her view increases the risk of an escalation of the conflict. Mrs. Sigmund also expressed that she was eager to see more dialogue concerning arms control issues in the region to build confidence and de-escalate the dispute and assured, that Germany would remain part of the discussion.

Round-up discussion

The discussion, in which all speakers and some of the symposium participants took part, was started off by a question from the Chinese side, which related to the differences in the German and US Indo-Pacific strategy. The main difference, as explained by the German side, is that the German strategy includes China as an important partner in questions relating to climate change, free trade, and security. It was stressed, that dialogue and collaboration with China in these and other fields are indispensable, especially in light of the ongoing disputes in the area.

Invoking the Confucian maxim of reciprocity, the Chinese side then asked how Germany would react if China was to declare the Mediterranean and Baltic Sea a vital area of involvement. To this, the German side replied that Germany respects the interest of China in the waters close to Europe, pointing out that China owns the economically important port of Piraeus and has conducted maneuvers in both the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean.

Pointing out the unreliability of the United States, the German side asked, why China, rather than taking over as a reliable partner, was breaking international treaties, especially with regard to the introduction of the security law in Hongkong. Replying to the question, the Chinese side disagreed with the assessment that China is an unreliable partner and pointed out, that the development of China in the last 40 years leaves only the conclusion that China is willing to integrate into and work together with the global community, as it has profited immensely from this course of action.

Answering a question about the potential military alliance between Russia and China, the Chinese side said in clear terms, that although China and Russia were under pressure from the US, the countries would not enter a military alliance for the foreseeable future. The German side pointed out that perceptions mattered in this case, and that the joint Russo-Chinese military maneuvers in the Baltic Sea were not helping China in making its European partners feel at ease.

With respect to the EU, the Chinese side stated that China supports European integration and military cooperation and that bilateral talks between China and several Eastern European countries had not been attempts to divide the EU. Rather, China had aimed at avoiding a drawn-out negotiation process with the EU.

As concluding remarks, Dr. Sommer stated that while Europe and China would always pursue their own interests, cooperation and joint support for multilateralism would always be desirable. Dr. Lindemann, as Executive Chairman of Global Bridges, declared she was looking forward to the two conferences that are to follow in the next two to three months.