WASHINGTON – The German navy’s frigate “Bayern” set sail on Monday for the Indo-Pacific region, fully loaded with Berlin’s aspirations to play a small role in the geopolitical standoff between China and the West.

The first such deployment in almost 20 years is meant to uphold freedom of navigation in international waters, protect “open societies” and express support for regional partners sharing Germany’s values, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a statement.

The six-month mission follows the government’s overall strategy, published almost a year ago, for dealing with Indo-Pacific challenges. For Germany, that has entailed a delicate dance around the subject of China, which government leaders believe is a would-be adversary in the security arena and an ally in other domains, like fighting climate change.

The Bayern’s departure from Wilhelmshaven comes after the coronavirus crisis last year ended planning for a more modern frigate to conduct the mission.

According to the German ministry of defense, the Bayern will help enforce the UN sanctions regime against North Korea and support the NATO and EU missions Operation Sea Guardian and Atalanta, respectively. As a show-of-presence and training mission, the ship’s deployment does not fall under the country’s laws requiring parliamentary approval for military operations, the defense ministry’s statement notes.

A map published by the German armed forces outlines stops in 12 different ports while underway, including in Djibouti, Karachi, Diego Garcia, Perth, Guam, Tokyo and Shanghai. The ship is scheduled to traverse the South China Sea, a hotspot of disputed Chinese territorial claims.

The deployment amounts to a heavy lift for the German sea service, according to Sebastian Bruns, German naval analyst and guest lecturer at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“Operationally, it’s an important contribution, although at the price of gutting the fleet,” he said, noting ship maintenance plans and crew training schedules had to be significantly altered to make the trip possible. “Politically, it’s even more significant, towards allies both in Europe and in the region, and towards China.”

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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