On May 26, German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen will begin several days of talks in New Delhi on questions of military and arms policies. India’s new armament projects are the immediate reason for von der Leyen’s visit. India wants, among other things, to construct German submarines under license, and Berlin is seeking a more intensified cooperation in foreign and military policy. This visit will prepare numerous agreements, within the framework of the German-Indian government consultations, scheduled for October. It takes place in the context of India’s efforts to roll back China’s influence in the Indian Ocean — an effort Berlin supports. Sri Lanka is a current point of contention of this power struggle. Over the past few years, this strategically important island nation has begun to ally itself closely with Beijing. To avoid a too strong dependency on China, the new Sri Lankan government — in office since January — is seeking to reduce its ties to China and strengthen relations to the West. Last week, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, welcomed his Sri Lankan counterpart in Berlin, to reinforce Germany’s position in Sri Lanka — in light of the power struggle with Beijing.
German Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen’s talks with her Indian counterpart, Manohar Parrikar, May 26, and May 27 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be focused on armaments projects — particularly on submarines. India’s leading dockyards, Mazagon Dock Limited is currently building “Scorpène” class submarines under license of France’s DCNS Company. The first one was launched in April and is now being tested. At the same time, the government in New Delhi plans to construct a second type of submarine under license and is interested in cooperation with the ThyssenKrupp Company. Between 1986 and 1994, India’s Navy commissioned four German-made submarines, to which more are to be added. According to the Indian press, other armament projects will also be discussed during the German defense minister’s visit.
India’s naval arms buildup is aimed directly at its assuring control over the Indian Ocean. This region is not only home to one-third of humanity and 40 percent of the world’s oil and gas reserves, also 33 percent of global trade, 50 percent of container ship traffic and 70 percent of the world’s oil transports cross this south Asian ocean. Above all however, New Delhi currently finds itself confronted with the fact that the People’s Republic of China is generally growing stronger and also expanding its activities particularly in the Indian Ocean. This can be seen in the fact that Beijing is building “an array of commercial ports in countries neighboring India — Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar,” according to an analysis published last year by the German Ministry of Defense. These will not only serve to expand its trade, but also “China’s potential for the military use of these facilities.” Therefore, India seeks to consolidate “its presence” in the Indian Ocean “and contain China’s growing influence,” explains the analysis further.
No Easy Partner
Berlin will support New Delhi in its efforts to push back Beijing — and not only with arms supplies. Germany and India maintain a “strategic partnership,” which, in principle, includes the entire range of foreign and military policy issues. Agreements on these issues are expected during Defense Minister von der Leyen’s current talks in New Delhi, in preparation for the German-Indian government consultations in October. Germany whole-heartedly shares India’s interests in prohibiting a further expansion of China’s power. However, India is “no easy partner for the West,” admits the author of the Defense Ministry’s analysis. “The idea” that this south Asian country can “be manipulated into becoming a counterweight to China, is an idea that only appeals to extremely few in India’s foreign and security policy community.” “Indian policymakers want, in no case, to see themselves as puppets of the West, and place great significance on an independent policy,” explains the author. Therefore, “over the past few years, New Delhi has positioned itself in the international arena in such a way that it cooperates with all significant major powers, without developing too strong ties to any one country” – not even to the West.
German-Indian efforts to roll back Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean are currently evident also in Sri Lanka, a strategically highly prominent South Asian country. This island nation, situated near India’s southern coast, at the maritime trade routes from East and Southeast Asia to the West, can not only keep an eye on the maritime routes, but also on India’s military activities, according to experts. China has greatly enhanced its relations to Sri Lanka over the past few years. The People’s Republic of China is not only competing with India’s traditional role as Sri Lanka’s most important supplier, but is also enhancing its own position through major investments in the Sri Lankan infrastructure. China is upgrading ports in the country’s capital, Colombo, and in Hambantota on the island nation’s southern coast, enabling Sri Lanka to become an exclusive hub for the important maritime trade passing through the Indian Ocean. Beijing has also begun using the Sri Lankan ports for its navy. Last September, a Chinese Navy submarine docked for the first time in Colombo.
Change of Course in Colombo
India, as well as Western countries, would like to take advantage of last January’s change of government in Colombo to roll back China’s advances. Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena announced his intentions to reduce Beijing’s influence in his country. “While President Sirisena recognizes the importance of strong bilateral ties with China, he does not want Sri Lanka to depend solely on one world power,” an expert at the analytical firm IHS explained. Therefore his first foreign visit, last February, was to India. Sirisena is also planning to cooperate more closely with Germany. At the end of last week, Sri Lankan Foreign Minster Mangala Samaraweera visited Berlin for talks with his German counterpart and with the German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development. Following his meeting with Samaraweera, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier declared that Berlin will “strongly support” Sri Lanka, which is on a “path of political and economic consolidation.” It is particularly important to intensify economic relations. Germany trails far behind China: whereas direct and indirect German investments in Sri Lanka were 123 Million Euros in 2012, Chinese investments were in the billions, and whereas China’s trade with Sri Lanka reached a volume on US $3.1 Billion in 2013, German-Sri Lankan trade had barely reached 700 Million Euros.
Running to Catch Up
“There is still a lot of potential” to foster German-Sri Lankan trade relations, announced Foreign Minister Steinmeier in an interview for the Sri Lankan press, and “potential investors have been contacted.” Berlin is running to catch up, with the objective of weakening Beijing’s position in the Indian Ocean.
1. Indo-German defence ministers meet next week. http://www.deccanherald.com 20.05.2015.
2. Manohar Parrikar undocks first indigenously-built Scorpene submarine. http://www.hindustantimes.com 06.04.2015.
3. Sandra Destradi: Regionalmacht in einem schwierigen Umfeld: Indien als sicherheitspolitischer Akteur. http://www.bmvg.de 30.05.2014.
4. See Chinas Gegenspieler.
5. Sandra Destradi: Regionalmacht in einem schwierigen Umfeld: Indien als sicherheitspolitischer Akteur. http://www.bmvg.de 30.05.2014.
6. See Outlines of a Multipolar World, german-foreign-policy.com.
7. Srinivas Mazumdaru: Modi seeking to counter China’s clout in Indian Ocean. http://www.dw.de 11.03.2015.
8. Gabriel Domínguez: Sri Lanka’s new leader to visit China after scaling back ties. http://www.dw.de 25.03.2015.
9. Unterstützung für demokratischen Weg Sri Lankas. http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de 22.05.2015.
10. German Foreign Minister says political changes impressive, urges meaningful reconciliation. http://www.ft.lk 13.05.2015.
(May 26, 2015)