German Navy chief strikes a tough note on China

Delhi speech raises hackles in Berlin.

January 22, 2022 11:59 pm | Updated January 23, 2022 05:26 am IST - New Delhi

Chief of the German Navy Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach speaks at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses on January 21, 2022. Photo: Twitter/@IDSAIndia

Chief of the German Navy Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach speaks at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses on January 21, 2022. Photo: Twitter/@IDSAIndia

China is “giving money to dictators and killers” so long as they give rights over their country’s resources, said Chief of German Navy Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach while also stating that Ukraine “cannot” meet the requirements of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and what Russian President Vladimir Putin really wants is “high-level respect” and it is “easy” to give him that as countries need Russia against China.

He made these strong comments during an interactive session at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) on January 21 during his visit to India coinciding with the docking of German Naval Frigate ‘Bayern’ at Mumbai.

On January 22, Germany’s Bild newspaper reported that Vice-Admiral Schönbach has been asked to explain his comments at the German Ministry of Defence in Berlin. “The [Admiral’s] statement in no way correspond to the position of the [German government] in terms of content and choice of words. Vice Adm Schönbach is given the opportunity to make a statement to the Inspector General,” Bild reported that the Ministry of Defence official had said.

The German Embassy in Delhi declined to comment, pointing instead to German Ambassador Walter J. Lindner’s piece in The Hindu on Saturday as Germany’s official position. When asked for a response, particularly to the Admiral’s comments on China, the Ministry of External Affairs also declined to comment.

Describing China as a growing “hegemonic power” which is using its money and power to put pressure on the international order, Vice-Admiral Schönbach said China has behaved as an enemy to some and has a “hidden agenda” in dealings with countries.

Giving an example of Chinese attempts to steal technology, the German Navy Chief spoke of Kuka robotics, a German company which was taken over by a “private” Chinese company and the “whole technology was gone” and “China is not paying back”.

In the context of this and other developments, he recalled German politicians’ view of China and said they believe that, “China is not that nice a country we probably thought of.” In this regard, he stated, “I am well aware when Germany even gives technology to Pakistan, it goes one by one through Pakistan in direction of India.”

Vice-Admiral Schönbach’s remarks on the possibility of a war with China come just two days after German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock held a videoconference meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, citing the need for “close cooperation” on a number of issues.

NATO and Russia

But it is on Russia that Vice-Admiral Schönbach’s comments have caused the bigger flutter in Berlin, given the critical role the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is trying to play on dialling down tensions over the Russian buildup along the border with Ukraine, and the decision by the United States and some NATO members, to bolster arms and ammunition supplies to the Ukrainian army to counter Russia.

On this, Vice-Admiral Schönbach questioned if Russia really wants to attack Ukraine. “Does Russia really want a small and tiny strip of Ukraine soil to integrate into their country? No, this is nonsense. Putin is probably putting pressure because can do it and he splits EU opinion. What he really wants is respect,” he said.

He further stated: “He [Putin] wants high-level respect and my God giving some respect is low cost, even no cost. If I was asked, it is easy to give him the respect he really demands and probably also deserves. Russia is an old country, Russia is an important country. Even we India, Germany, need Russia. We need Russia against China…” This, he said, is “easy” and “keeps Russia away from China” because China needs resources of Russia and they [Russia] are willing to give them because the sanctions sometimes do go the “wrong way”.

On Ukraine’s possible admission into NATO, Vice-Admiral Schönbach said, “Ukraine of course cannot meet the requirements because it’s occupied in the Donbas region by the Russian Army or by what they call as militias.” In this context, he also said the Crimea peninsula, which was annexed by Russia, is “gone” and is “not coming back”.

His criticism that European sanctions have probably pushed Russia closer to China will also be frowned upon in Western capitals, with the U.S. increasing sanctions against Moscow in the past week. Furthermore, his contention that the “Crimea peninsula is gone and will never come back” runs counter to both U.S. and EU’s foreign policy that has called on Russia to reverse its annexation of Crimea since 2014.

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