New Threats to the Freedom of the Seas – how vulnerable are Germany and Europe?

The safety of maritime trade routes is an important issue, especially for countries like Germany, whose economies are largely based on their merchant fleets. For this reason, Global Bridges organised a video symposium on April 21, 2021. The following speakers were invited: Rear Admiral Jürgen zur Mühlen, current Head of Operations in the Naval Command as well as former Force Commander of Operation Atalanta, and Irina Haesler, Head of Maritime Security Policy and the EU Representation of the Association of German Shipowners (VDR).

The symposium was moderated by Dr. Sarah Kirchberger, who, in addition to her activities as Head of the Strategic Development in the Asia-Pacific Department at the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel (ISPK) and Vice President of the German Maritime Institute (DMI), is also a board member at Global Bridges. On behalf of Global Bridges, Dr. Beate Lindemann, executive chairwoman of the association, and more than 30 members took part in the symposium.

At the beginning, Dr. Lindemann introduced the speakers and moderator and thanked everyone for their participation. She also stated that this event was the second on the topic of sea routes within a short time, as there had already been a symposium on Indo-Pacific security issues with a Chinese partner organization in September. Dr. Kirchberger thanked Global Bridges and her personally for planning the event and underlined the importance of the issue of safety of the sea routes, which in her opinion is often underestimated by politics and the population. As an export nation with one of the largest merchant fleets in the world, Germany is extremely vulnerable to the impassability of straits or entire bodies of water, such as the South China Sea. The recent blockade of the Suez Canal was a clear sign of how much Germany depends on the freedom of the seas. In the run-up to the speakers’ contributions, she asked for prognoses and possible solutions with which Germany, as a country with a short coastline and a relatively small navy, could tackle the issue.

At the beginning of her contribution, Irina Haesler once again underlined the importance of sea trade for the German economy; The German merchant fleet is the fifth largest in the world, and even the second largest in container ships, and 80-90% of global trade goes by sea, but politicians do not attach great importance to the issue. Shipowners are always the first to feel geopolitical tensions, since in some cases ships can be detained in the ports of third countries under flimsy pretexts, which makes the profit margins of the shipping companies heavily dependent on the arbitrariness of these third countries. Piracy off West Africa in the Gulf of Guinea is also a serious threat, as the pirates are becoming increasingly professional and brutal. Furthermore, in addition to increased transport costs, the pandemic has stranded many seamen around the world in foreign countries, who are still being looked after by the seamen’s missions in Germany.

After a question from Dr. Kirchberger, what from the VDR’s point of view the German Navy could do to curb piracy off West Africa, Haesler replied that, like many European allies, it could send a ship into the Gulf of Guinea to prevent German ships from being attacked.

At the beginning of his contribution, Rear Admiral Jürgen zur Mühlen pointed out that the freedom of sea routes is a core element of the tasks of the German Navy, that the security policy framework determines the presence and deployment of the German Navy qualitatively and geographically, and that the ability to defend the country and alliances is a main focus in this respect. Security, trading centers, jobs, income and prosperity depend to a not inconsiderable extent on the smooth shipping of goods of all kinds, the lion’s share of which is shipped across the seas. The growing political and economic importance of the Indo-Pacific region and the Asian markets as well as the associated development of the international order are of particular interest to Germany and its partners in the region as well as the USA, Great Britain and France. Working towards a rules-based international order, including the security of the sea routes in the region, is an important aspect. The German Navy has and will continue to make a contribution to the safety of the sea routes together with its alliance partners within the framework of international crisis management. There, a range of preventive approaches, such as cooperation with and training of local partners, as well as the actual deployment, such as Operation Atalanta off the Horn of Africa, is pursued.

In the eyes of zur Mühlen, the situation in West Africa is completely different from that in Somalia; on the one hand, institutions of West African states already exist to deal with the issue; on the other hand, West African piracy is influencing world trade to a lesser extent than was the case before Somalia. The federal government will continue to use its resources carefully and monitor the urgency of the situation in the Gulf of Guinea. However, the situation is not serious enough for a German naval presence at the moment.

At the request of Dr. Kirchberger, zur Mühlen explained that China is endangering the freedom of sea routes primarily through its territorial claims in the South China Sea and the development of a maritime silk road. The dispatch of a German frigate to the Indo-Pacific region is a necessary step in order to send a clear signal for the freedom of the seas to the allies and partners in the region, as well as China. A multilateral deployment of the allies must remain the modus operandi vis-à-vis China.

Dr. Kirchberger then asked Mrs. Haesler whether she thought the intensive use of the new Arctic route, which could shorten the length of many sea trade routes in the area, was realistic. Mrs. Haesler replied that few German shipowners were interested in the subject. Nevertheless, it can already be seen that international organizations are increasingly turning to the topic in order to regulate the route. However, Russia is vehemently resisting this.

Regarding the comment by Dr. Kirchberger, that many countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea were not happy about the dispatch of European warships, zur Mühlen said that the German government was pursuing the approach of “helping people to help themselves”. States would be given material support and training in building capacities to combat piracy. The fact that the German Navy, unlike other countries, does not send a ship is due to the fact that it does not have sufficiently important interests in the area, unlike France, for example. In addition, an agreement on joint action has not yet been reached at EU level.

In response to a participant’s question, how sea straits such as the Strait of Hormuz could be blocked, Admiral zur Mühlen replied that it would not be necessary to sink two container ships, as proposed, but that rumors about sea mines in the strait could be the reason for a considerable reduction in oil transport.

On the subject of West African piracy, Ms. Haesler added that private security forces are often unreliable because it is never clear how well they can react in a dangerous situation. In addition, almost all West African states prohibit the use of armed security forces in their territories. There are also many other ways to prevent pirate attacks, such as water cannons or barbed wire on the railing.

With regard to the maritime Silk Road, Haesler warned urgently of the dangers of Chinese port acquisitions, since in an emergency it cannot be guaranteed that ships will be treated equally regardless of their flag or owner state. Admiral zur Mühlen agreed with her and added that the risk of espionage and sabotage in such ports increases considerably. In cases such as these, it would have to be considered whether the port can be used by navy vessels.

At the end of the symposium, Dr. Lindemann thanked all speakers and participants for their contributions and held out the prospect of another symposium on the topic. She also invited all those present to the video conference on May 18, 2021, where the economic policy priorities of the new German government will be discussed.