New German government and the regional impacts

Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats reacts after he was elected new German Chancellor in the German Parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. The election and swearing-in of the new Chancellor and the swearing-in of the federal ministers of the new federal government will take place in the Bundestag on Wednesday. (Photo/Stefanie Loos)

The new “traffic light” coalition government in Germany will have to perform a major Houdini act, should it decide to take a radical departure from its predecessor’s foreign policy, especially towards this region. For the past 16 years, Southeast Asia has enjoyed one of the best relationships with Europe’s most powerful country. Germany does not have any colonial experience or historical baggage in this part of the world. Therefore, the overall perception of the country is quite positive, far different to that of other key European countries.

With the Green Party joining the coalition for the first time under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, however, it has now become a major power broker in German politics and external relations. That means it will have influence on European and global affairs. With Annalena Baerbock as the new foreign minister, it is clear that German foreign policy will not be same. How different will the current German government’s approach be when compared to its predecessor?

Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attends a G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Session with Guest Countries and ASEAN Nations on the final day of the G7 foreign ministers summit in Liverpool, north-west England on December 12, 2021. (Photo by PHIL NOBLE / POOL / AFP)

One indicator will be in the implementation of Germany’s Indo-Pacific strategy. It is a lightweight document, compared to other countries’ strategies, especially those of France and the EU as a whole. Its main focus is on multilateralism and trade. The new German government might want to add more strategic substance in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

The region expects Germany to act as a balance wheel among major powers. Berlin might have done that within the context of the EU, especially with its policy towards China, climate change and the refugee crisis, among others. Germany is, however, still behind in Southeast Asia. In 2019, Germany decided to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, ASEAN’s internationally accepted code of conduct, before it became a development dialogue partner. In early November, Germany dispatched the frigate Bayern to the disputed territorial waters of the South China Sea, to show support of its friends and allies.

If the new German government decides to pursue diplomacy with the region based on norms and values, it will be difficult to forge a closer relationship unless the Green Party decides to take a softer approach. It is not that the region does not respect human rights or democratic values, but one must realise that each country chooses to implement these in different ways. It is not a case of one size fits all. The region has a mixed record on human rights and democratic values. Each member enjoys various levels of freedom, none of them is perfect. Therefore, it is pivotal that the new coalition conducts balanced diplomacy towards the region, otherwise it could upend German’s reservoir of goodwill. Lest we forget, members of the Green Party have a tendency to stir up sensitive matters to brandish their political power and profile.

Baerbock will certainly focus on the rule of law and respect for human rights, an approach that will impact ASEAN members, but the jury is still out. Indeed, Germany must not take the same route as the US, which has already divided Southeast Asia nations into two groups, as democratic or non-democratic.

With its longstanding credentials as a friend of Southeast Asia, Berlin must take this opportunity to strengthen cooperation in the post-pandemic era, focusing on building peace, stability and societal wellness for all.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn


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