Keynote Speech “Opportunities and Challenges in the Centre of the Indo-Pacific” at “Meet the Chamber”, 18 February 2021


Dear Jens Ruebbert,
Dear Tim Philippi,
Dear representatives of German businesses in Singapore!

Thank you very much for inviting me.

It is a great pleasure and honor speaking to you about opportunities and challenges in this region.

But first let me apologize for not inviting you all this evening to my residence.

Covid restrictions only allow for 8 guests – even at an ambassador’s residence.

1. On 1 February the military seized power in Yangon overturning the democratically elected civil government and detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and other ruling party officials.

In many ways the situation in Myanmar and the power struggle evolving around this military coup can be seen as reflecting the current political challenges in this region of the world.

A lot is at stake.

  • Politically, the new situation is undoubtedly a serious step backwards for the country on its path towards democracy.
  • At the same time the situation not only raises serious questions for the future of the country, but also for stability and security in the region.
    Let us not forget that Myanmar borders the two largest Asian countries China and India – both of whom enjoy a rather strained relationship with one another.
  • The military coup brings ASEAN in quite an uncomfortable situation. ASEAN having considerably contributed to fostering the democratic process in Myanmar it is now confronted with a situation that is clearly inconsistent with the core principles of its Charter.
  • ASEAN seems to be divided:

    Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia expressed concerns over the power seizure, calling for restraint and a peaceful resolution of the matter.

    Other ASEAN members including Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, have qualified developments as an “internal matter”.

  • Apart from facing troubled waters internally ASEAN will also have to get to terms with its international Partners.
    Two of whom, namely the US and the EU, have strongly condemned the coup and even threatened to impose sanctions – punitive measures which ASEAN has traditionally refuted and in which they see no merit other than doing harm to the People.

  • Beyond any doubt the events in Myanmar will also have an economic impact.
    Not only ASEAN members with Singapore in first place have invested considerably in Myanmar.
    Depending on the further evolvement of events, these investments may be threatened.
    In any case, an unreliable political framework, potentially aggravated by international sanctions, will certainly dampen the country’s appeal as a future destination for Investors.

2. Now, why should Germany bother?

Federal Foreign Minister Maas condemned the coup on 1 February.

He made it very clear that the events unfolding in Myanmar were against the will of the people as expressed during parliamentary elections of November 2020 and needed to be reversed.

So where exactly do German interests lie?

  • First, Germany believes in core fundamental rights and principles and stands ready to defend them whenever possible. Any disregard of democratic principles, from a German point of view, cannot go unanswered.

    The same is true for human rights’ violations.

  • Secondly, we want to safeguard German business interests as well as to protect German investment.

    The unravelling of a democratically elected political frame is bound to do harm to our business and commercial interests.

  • Thirdly, ASEAN is a key partner of Germany and the EU.

    Only on 1 December 2020 did EU and ASEAN agree to upgrade their relationship to the level of a strategic partnership.

    It goes without saying that we want and need a strong and united ASEAN – as a strategic partner.

    Whatever threatens to divide ASEAN is neither in our German nor European interest.

  • Forthly, we do not want the global power struggle in particular between the US and China to be further fueled by events such as in Myanmar.

    And we certainly have no interest in eventually seeing China further expanding its sphere of influence.
    Events in Myanmar are just a case in point to underline why Germany most recently has adopted policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific.
    The Indo-Pacific is a priority of German foreign policy.
    Why is that so?
    Simply because German prosperity and geopolitical influence in the coming decades will depend on how Germany interacts with the countries of the Indo-Pacific Region.

3. Mainly three observations have led us to reflect on the Indo-Pacific:

(1) The center of gravity is gradually shifting from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific:
Decades of steady economic growth - not only in China, but also in South and Southeast Asia – have led to a gradual shift also of political power to this region of the world.

Germany is neither an Indo-Pacific power nor does it have geopolitical interests in the region.
Therefore, it has no “natural” seat at the table of respective regional organizations and institutions.

Yet, we have vital interests in the region:

open markets, functioning sea routes, sustainable supply chains, norms and standards, but also the promotion of global agendas like climate and environmental protection.

If we want to have a say in the Indo-Pacific, we have to upgrade our engagement in the region.

(2) The relentless rise of China becomes increasingly challenging. China pursues its interests not only in its neighborhood but also in our countries with growing assertiveness.

If we want to deal with China successfully, we are well advised to look at the entire Indo-Pacific.

(3) The global power struggle between the US and China is driving the world into a growing antagonism and a looming bipolarity.
However, Germany has no interest at all in a situation where countries have to choose sides.
We would not only lose China (or US) but all those countries that will end up in the “Chinese (or US) camp” as political and economic partners. In other words, a new bipolarity would come at a huge cost.

We have to avoid such a scenario.

4. How do the Indo-Pacific Guidelines translate into our China policy?

It is important to understand that a purely confrontational policy towards China would not take us very far in the Indo-Pacific: It would limit our options with regional partners.

The countries of the Indo-Pacific, in particular in South and Southeast Asia, are pursuing a differentiated approach towards China.

They stick to an inclusive vision for the whole region – vividly reflected by the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific adopted in 2019.

This approach coincides with our own: Diversification does not mean exclusion. Our guidelines are explicitly bound to the principle of inclusiveness.

Regarding China, we are following a three-dimensional approach:

(1) China is our partner in coping with global challenges like the protection of climate and biodiversity or fighting pandemics.

We cooperate with China on regional issues such as Afghanistan and the DPRK. We also work together in the field of economic development – globally and in specific countries.

(2) China is our competitor in a trade and investment relationship, which is suffering under considerable asymmetries.

We are working hard to overcome these asymmetries and reach a level playing field, for example through an EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.

(3) China is our systemic rival:
- in terms of its governance,
- in terms of human rights,
- in terms of its understanding of the international order,
- in terms of its selective respect for international conventions.
(The disregard of UNCLOS and the ruling of the arbitration court on the South China Sea is just one prominent example).
We have to defend our values, our interests, and our sovereignty with the appropriate means and instruments.
We have to strengthen the resilience of our societies and economies.

Since this three-dimensional approach is shared by many countries in the Indo-Pacific, we are well advised to team up with these countries in order to increase the effectiveness of our approach towards China.

While acknowledging our systemic differences with China and simultaneously enhancing our cooperation with partners in the region in the spirit of soft balancing, we should not try to contain China, but rather frame China’s rise in a way that is acceptable to us.

5. You might argue that governments are often strong in formulating policies, but less so in implementing them.

So where do we stand with regard to the implementation of the Indo-Pacific policy guidelines?

There are quite a number of deliverables we can present at this stage – half a year after adoption of the guidelines:

  • Under German EU presidency the EU was successful in concluding negotiations on a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China.
  • In December 2020, also under German presidency, the EU and ASEAN agreed on a strategic partnership between EU and ASEAN, thereby considerably upgrading their relationship.
  • Following a formal decision by the German federal cabinet at the end of January 2021 we officially notified our intention to accede to ReCAAP.
    This acronym stands for an international agreement on which basis partners in the region and beyond share information on security-related incidents on sea, draw up joint assessments and come up with operational recommendations.
    Our accession to ReCAAP is yet another proof of our readiness to get engaged more strongly in Asia.
  • When German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer held online conferences with her counterparts in the region - including with the Singaporean defense minister - she seized the opportunity to underline Germany’s commitment in and vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific.
  • The two foreign ministers regularly talk to and consult with each other on issues of strategic relevance and/or importance.
    As like-minded partners in the Alliance for Multilateralism it comes natural that they compare notes and agree on coordinated approaches on various issues.
    They last spoke on 9 February mostly on the events in Myanmar.
  • Bilaterally we have agreed on and operationalized a Reciprocal Green Lane between Singapore and Germany.
    Even though Singapore decided to suspend this special travel corridor for three months due to the Covid situation in Germany and Europe it remains an essential tool facilitating travel between our two countries.

6. As outlined earlier the policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific are also a tool to promote German business interests and to foster economic ties with the countries in the region.

The EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement is such an example.

But more can, more should be done in this regard.

Berlin and Singapore are in discussions on a bilateral economic framework with the aim of enhancing our bilateral economic cooperation.

This initiative by the way is direct follow-up of Minister Chan Chun Sing’s exchange with you in mid-December when SGC hosted him at a physical event.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Coming to an end I would like to highlight an important initiative that was born from amongst you.

Within the framework of the SGC Sustainability Committee some of you developed the idea of a plastic recycling project.

A “Grün Book” that in the presence of Minister Grace Fu was introduced to Singapore’s public last summer set the legal and practical frame for this project.

Backed by the Ministry for the Environment and Sustainability the project group embarked upon setting up a bilateral Plastic Recycling Association.

The core idea of this project is to develop very concrete practical and technological approaches to solving the needs and requirements of plastic recycling in Singapore.

Basically, the project is about German and Singaporean experts and stakeholders working together to develop best practices for Singapore.

Ultimately, what works here in Singapore very likely also works in the region.

In that sense this plastic recycling project is a classic example of what we want to achieve in the context of the policy guidelines.

We want to work together with partners in the region to learn from each other and to cooperate for our mutual benefit.

I can only encourage all of you to bring forward concrete ideas that fit into this overall context.

Wherever political backing or stimulus is needed to get things moving in the right direction you and your headquarters can count on the German government’s support.

Top of page