COLOGNE, Germany — German officials are scrambling to build a common approach to China as a cornerstone of Europe-U.S. defense relations.

An offer to that effect was featured in a congratulatory tweet last week by Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer aimed at newly inaugurated President Joe Biden. The “New Deal,” as she called it, aims for Europe to be an “eye-level partner” for Washington rather than a needy protege.

On China, the tweet goes, Berlin wants a “common agenda,” adding: “as long as it’s compatible with our interests.”

The last bit is remarkable not so much for its apparent needlessness — states naturally avoid going against their interests — but rather as a harbinger that the China angle is going to be rather complicated. Fresh off a European Union trade deal with Beijing, Berlin has clung to its mantra of compartmentalizing international relations into separate bins, like economics and national security — a stance that critics have said is naive.

It remains to be seen what the touch points are with the Biden administration when it comes to China. For now, there is still something of a honeymoon phase here over having an avowed trans-Atlanticist back in the White House.

“It’s good that the German defense minister is leaning forward with an aspiration to strengthen cooperation with the new U.S. administration,” said Jeffrey Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. “It is also extremely important in my view that the German government engage early and substantively with the Biden administration on things related to China — not just security, though security should be part of those discussions.”

But, he added, there is still uncertainty about where trans-Atlantic defense policy goals converge.

“There is a more fundamental effort necessary: to reach a shared trans-Atlantic understanding of how China represents a threat or challenge to the trans-Atlantic community. We use similar rhetoric — partner, competitor, rival — to describe the different roles China plays in the world, but we don’t necessarily agree on which Chinese activities fall into those three categories,” Rathke said.

In that sense, he argued, the security and defense field will be the lagging edge rather than the leading edge of trans-Atlantic cooperation.

For its part, the German Navy has resumed the planning process to send a frigate to the Asia-Pacific region in 2021 after the coronavirus crisis upended plans for such a mission last year. Senior officials are still deliberating the envisioned ship’s route, though it’s clear the service will sail without a dedicated support vessel, a Navy spokesman told Defense News.

The idea of showing Germany’s limited military might in China’s environs is something of a double-edged sword, according to Sebastian Bruns, a naval analyst at the University of Kiel in northern Germany.

While such a “one-off mission” may make sense as a strategic gesture, the operational effect is questionable, he argued. For one, operational caveats imposed on the sailors by the German government, as is likely to happen, could limit the mission’s utility alongside U.S. vessels. In addition, any kind of incident on the underway frigate — engine troubles or a COVID-19 outbreak — with no accompanying support vessel in tow could lay bare the sea service’s readiness woes at the most inopportune time, said Bruns. “The Chinese media would have a field day.”

In a sense, China is emerging as something of crash course for the German government in understanding forceful geopolitics through means other than the military. Beijing has already made inroads in acquiring European port infrastructure and is pushing its communications technology on the continent, Bruns noted.

“If we don’t clearly formulate our interests, any naval deployment to the region would only be part of a piecemeal approach,” the analyst said.

It is in that expanded view of power politics that Germany may find its niche amid the intersection of trans-Atlantic relations and China, some experts argue.

“If we look at security more broadly to encompass technological innovation — protecting the Western and NATO edge as well as preventing Chinese attempts to acquire sensitive technologies — there is a lot more to talk about,” Rathke said.

For example, there is work to be done in the alliance’s efforts toward greater resiliency against outside influence, which could include investment-screening efforts in Europe, he added. In addition, helping countries avoid getting locked into Chinese-controlled supply chains requires cross-country collaboration.

“Perhaps NATO could be given a role in assessing the impact of certain sensitive investments in this screening process,” Rathke said.

German defense officials may attempt to raise the China profile in U.S.-German relations without any immediate connection to the region whatsoever, according to observers. In that line of thinking, the very act of bolstering European defenses, thereby freeing American capabilities for the Asia portfolio, could be counted against the objective of a common China policy.

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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