For the first time, Germany participates in Exercise Pitch Black as it returns in an all-new avatar after a four-year hiatus. In the largest peacetime deployment of the German air force, thirteen combat aircraft have been sent to participate in the exercise in Australia. In the middle of the 2010s very few, if any, would have suggested German participation in joint combat drills with extensive deployment far away from the western hemisphere, however, staying true to the unpredictable nature of the 2020s, it has also become a reality.
While Berlin may have underplayed its significance, the development has highlighted Berlin’s increasing focus on the Indo-Pacific; that is, the geopolitical fulcrum of the 21st century.
It was only last year that for the first time in over 20 years, a German warship entered the South China Sea. With growing concern about Beijing’s territorial ambitions and its support for Russian actions in Eastern Europe, Berlin seems to have joined other Western countries in increasing their military presence in what Beijing is increasingly considering its own backyard.
The development becomes all the more significant, given the geopolitical temperatures reached an all-time high in Early August. Since China, which asserts Taiwan as its own territory, began conducting military exercises surrounding the democratically run island following Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei at the beginning of August, tensions over Taiwan have also increased.
Exercise Pitch Black
Exercise Pitch Black is a large-scale, multi-national training exercise for the air forces of Australia and interested partner nations. It spans a sizable portion of the northern half of the territory for three weeks, from August 19 to September 8 this year, with personnel use Darwin as their base.
Following a four-year hiatus, it will be returning to the Northern Territory in the coming weeks, and up to 100 fighter jets will be blasting over the sky over Darwin. The major foreign engagement exercise for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), which was formerly hosted in Darwin every two years, was postponed in 2020 owing to COVID-19. Now that it’s back, there are more nations participating than ever before; including three that are taking part for the first time and Germany is one of them.
According to German air force chief Ingo Gerhartz, during the deployment, which includes detours to Japan and South Korea, the pilots would refuel the fighter jets over 200 times in flight. When asked if the airplanes would fly over the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, two areas where tensions with China have flared up, Gerhartz responded that they would utilize civilian air traffic routes and that flying over the Taiwan Strait was not in the plans.
Six Eurofighter jets and three A330 tankers left their bases in Cologne and Neuburg a der Donau, respectively, on Monday for a three-day flight to Australia, where they will join 16 other countries for the biennial exercise Pitch Black, along with four German A400M transporters that have already departed.
With only Australian forces present when it was initially staged in Williamtown, New South Wales, in 1981, the exercise was transferred to Darwin and added the United States as its first foreign partner in 1983. 17 nations, including Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, France, the UAE, Indonesia, India, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia, will participate in this year’s exercise. South Korea, Japan, and Germany will all be participating for the first time. About 100 aircraft and 2,500 participants from around the world will be present.
Germany, Indo-Pacific and its evolved China policy
Germany, which had promoted pacifism and developed a policy of reconciliation with Russia as well as a strong economic dependence on China, has changed course dramatically as a result of these developments. To put it in context, the economic relationship between Germany and China is enormous, with German exports of around 600 million euros daily and those of China of almost 1.3 billion.
Chinese FDI from Germany is close to 100 billion euros. Relations with China were strengthened and the Europeans obtained a preliminary agreement on a comprehensive investment deal thanks to the influence of the then-German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The transaction has been frozen, nevertheless, due to escalating tensions brought on by the EU’s position on Xinjiang.
The European Union’s classification of China as a “systemic rival” in 2019 and the rising criticism of Beijing over its human rights policies in regard to Hong Kong and Xinjiang were signs of some changes to come. Germany released its Indo-Pacific policy in 2020, with the key objective of diversifying German partnerships away from China and toward Japan, ASEAN, and Australia.
Germany has been making efforts recently to lessen its reliance on China in crucial areas. The United States has united with European nations in response to Russian aggression. But the Scholz-led coalition had made it obvious that it planned to deepen its ties with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea even before the conflict in the Ukraine. The latest action of participating in the exercise is a node in the larger trajectory of German geopolitical arithmetic calculations.