August 4, 2021 - 3:43pm

‘And off we go’ came the jolly tweet from the German frigate ‘Bayern’ on Monday as it left the port of Wilhelmshaven to go on a seven-month journey through the Indo-Pacific region. But the winking faces and waving hands emoticons that accompanied the Auf Wiedersehen message, bely the gravity of the situation. For the first time in nearly 20 years, Germany is sending a warship into the South China Sea.

American efforts to push back on Chinese expansion in the region have long been under way. The U.S. Navy itself conducts so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ tours through contested waters and has urged its allies to do the same. Britain and France have both sent war ships into the South China Sea in defiance of protests from Beijing.

But so far Germany has shown reluctance to get involved — for two key reasons. The first is the country’s general reluctance to commit itself to international military missions of any description. The legacy of the two world wars which emanated from German soil still runs deep.

On Monday, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s speech to the crew of the Bayern about to leave Wilhelmshaven was therefore purposely bland: “We want existing law to be respected, sea routes to be freely navigable, open societies to be protected and trade to follow fair rules” — a far cry from Kaiser Wilhelm II’s belligerent speech, almost exactly 121 years ago and 18 miles to the East at Bremerhaven. He too had sent German ships to China, but told the men on them to behave like ‘the Huns under their King Attila’. It was not only the epithet that would stick and be reinforced but also the association of the German military with bestiality and aggression.

The result of Germany’s deep-seated historical guilt is that rearmament and military involvement have been highly sensitive political topics in the country since the Second World War. Germany’s armed services are woefully under-resourced. It was only under pressure from President Trump in 2019 that the government agreed to raise its military spending to the 2% of GDP required by NATO, and it will only reach this by 2031. When Kramp-Karrenbauer first mentioned the Indo-Pacific deployment of a German frigate three years ago, the opposition jeered that she would have to make one seaworthy first.

The other strong reason against German intervention in the South China Sea is that China is Germany’s most important trading partner with a total trade volume of 212 billion Euros in 2020. This helped both nations get through the Covid crisis comparatively well. Import and export are also almost evenly split — a ‘win-win cooperation’, as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang put it on the visit earlier this year. He also used the same opportunity to warn Merkel to stay out of ‘internal affairs’, meaning human rights abuses and aggressive regional expansion.

This has put Germany in a difficult situation as it attempts to keep its economic relationships with the East while maintaining its strategic alliances in the West. The nearly-complete oil pipeline Nord Stream 2, which will deliver energy directly from Russia to Germany is as much of a thorn in Germany’s relationship with the U.S. as it is financially lucrative. The same applies to the scale of trade with China. Both have continuously tainted relations between Berlin and Washington over the years.

So as Germany sends its first war ship into the South China Sea in decades, it may do so accompanied by smiley emoticons and hollow political statements. But the Bayern’s voyage marks a sea change in German foreign policy — so long as it does not turn around at the slightest sign of stiff wind blowing from Beijing.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.