German warship heads for South China Sea amid tensions with Beijing

By Sabine Siebold

BERLIN, Aug. 2 (Reuters) – Germany on Monday sent a warship to the South China Sea for the first time in nearly two decades, joining other Western countries to expand its military presence in the region as the concern is growing over China’s territorial ambitions.

China claims swathes of the South China Sea and has established military outposts on man-made islands in waters that contain gas fields and rich fishing.

The US Navy, in a show of force against Chinese territorial claims, regularly conducts so-called “freedom of navigation” operations in which their ships pass near some of the disputed islands. China in turn opposes US missions, saying they do not help promote peace or stability.

Washington has placed the fight against China at the heart of its national security policy and seeks to rally its partners against what it says are Beijing’s increasingly coercive economic and foreign policies.

Officials in Berlin said the German navy would stick to common trade routes. The frigate is also not expected to cross the Taiwan Strait, another regular American activity condemned by Beijing.

Nevertheless, Berlin made it clear that the mission serves to highlight the fact that Germany does not accept China’s territorial claims.

Germany is walking a tightrope between its security and its economic interests as China has become Berlin’s most important trading partner. German exports there have helped mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Europe’s largest economy.

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer traveled to the port of Wilhelmshaven to see the frigate Bayern off its seven-month trip which will take it to Australia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

The ship is expected to cross the South China Sea in mid-December, making it the first German warship to cross the region since 2002.

“We want existing law to be obeyed, sea lanes to be freely navigable, open societies to be protected and trade to follow a level playing field,” said Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Countries like Britain, France, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have also expanded their activity in the Pacific to counter the influence of China. (Edited by Alison Williams)

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