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German military ramps up Indo-Pacific presence

Matthias von Hein
September 3, 2022

Germany's Bundeswehr is increasing its military presence in the Indo-Pacific — at a time when war rages closer to home, in Ukraine. But Berlin is seeking to demonstrate cooperation with its "value partners" in Australia.

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Three Eurofighter jets flying in formation
German Eurofighter jets participated in a recent military exercise in AustraliaImage: Aaron Bunch/AAP/picture alliance

A war is raging in Europe. This has put a spotlight on Germany's Bundeswehr and its shortcomings, with leading officers deploring a dramatic shortage of functional equipment.

And yet, Germany's air force is currently participating in a military exercise on the other side of the globe, in Australia, where it has sent six Eurofighter jets

It's an ambitious undertaking. Some 250 German soldiers are involved; in addition to the fighter jets, four transport aircraft and three newly acquired air-to-air refueling tankers have been sent to Darwin in northern Australia, with some 100 tons of material.

Pilots from different countries standing on an airfield in the sunshine
Pilots from 17 countries are taking part in the maneuvers in AustraliaImage: Christina zur Nedden

Among other things, the air force delivery operation was intended to prove that Germany's air force is operational and can be deployed quickly — even to the Indo-Pacific region. The transfer of fighter jets and supply planes to the stopover in Singapore in mid-August, which went by the name Rapid Pacific 2022, was accomplished within 24 hours. In military jargon, this is called "strategic deployment capability."

The so-called Pitch Black military exercise, from August 19 to September 8, is bringing together some 2,500 personnel and 100 aircraft from around the world in Australia's Northern Territory. Germany is already planning to participate in a series of exercises next year in Australia, this time with its army, according to a Reuters interview with Germany's top military official in late August.

Inspector General Eberhard Zorn also announced the navy's return to the Indo-Pacific, with an entire fleet unit. "We don't want to provoke anyone with our presence, but we also want to send a clear signal of solidarity to our value partners," Zorn explained.

Eberhard Zorn gesturing in an interview
Eberhard Zorn is responsible for the planning and assessment of Bundeswehr operations Image: Jörg Carstensen/dpa/picture alliance

National defense was the day before yesterday

With its deployment to Australia, Germany's military has come a long way — and not just geographically. Founded in 1955, West Germany's Bundeswehr was focused purely on national defense for decades after World War II. And its main task was deterrence: After all, until German reunification in 1990, the Iron Curtain between East and West ran right through the middle of Germany, with a heavily armed military on each side.

The Bundeswehr took part in the Kosovo war in 1999, but only after months of heated political debate. Then, in 2004, the Bundeswehr launched its Afghanistan mission, with Defense Minister Peter Struck famously telling Germans that their country's security interests were now being defended in the Hindu Kush mountains.

And now, the Bundeswehr has launched operations in the Indo-Pacific, a region that has dominated security policy debates in recent years. Everything between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of the American continent is considered a strategically contiguous area. At the center of this gigantic region lies China.

"The Indo-Pacific concept is very much about a rising China, which is getting stronger, which has also overturned previous certainties in the region — and on the other hand, the leadership role of the US, which is fraught with uncertainty," said Boas Lieberherr of the Center for Security Studies in Zurich in a DW interview.

Increasing focus on China

The increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific is reflected in a growing number of policy documents. In September 2020, for example, the former federal government adopted its "Indo-Pacific Guidelines." In it, reference was made to Asia's rise in political and economic importance. Without mentioning China by name, the German government noted an increasing "strategic competition for influence in the region" and stated that "the Indo-Pacific is becoming the key to shaping the international order in the 21st century."

The European Union followed suit this past spring, with the 27 member states adopting their Indo-Pacific strategy at the end of April.

It spoke of the EU's big stake in the Indo-Pacific region, where it "has every interest that the regional architecture remains open and rules-based."

Without mentioning China, it lamented that the "current dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region" have "given rise to intense geopolitical competition, adding to increasing pressure on trade and supply chains as well as in tensions in technological, political, and security areas. The universality of human rights is also being challenged."

And when the North Atlantic military alliance — in name alone — adopted NATO's new Strategic Concept at the Madrid summit in late June, both the Indo-Pacific and China featured prominently. "The Indo-Pacific is important to NATO because developments in this region can have immediate implications for Euro-Atlantic security," the paper noted. China is decidedly described as a challenge "to our interests, security, and values." Elsewhere, the document emphasized NATO partners working together "to address systemic challenges to Euro-Atlantic security emanating from the People's Republic of China."

German frigate "Bayern" traveling through the Mediterranean Sea in 2008
In 2021, the German armed forces deployed the Bayern frigate to the Indo-Pacific regionImage: Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images

Frigate Bayern on a great voyage

The first step toward greater military involvement by the German armed forces in the Indo-Pacific was the deployment of the frigate Bayern. When it set sail in August 2021, it was the first German warship to set course for Asia in almost 20 years.

Like the air force's current presence in Australia, the Bayern's voyage was intended as a signal to the world community that Germany was interested in helping to strengthen the rule-based international order. However, the fact that the frigate also called at Diego Garcia, the naval base used by the US in the Indian Ocean, drew criticism. 

The status of the island, which was leased to the US by the United Kingdom, is disputed. In 2019, the International Court of Justice ruled against the UK saying that its claim to Diego Garcia violated international law. The UN General Assembly then overwhelmingly followed that ruling and strengthened Mauritius' claim to the island.

Political scientist Felix Heiduk of the Berlin-based think tank German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which is largely funded by the German chancellor's office, noted a certain double standard in the Bayern frigate's course, saying it was hardly compatible "with regard to the defense of the rules-based order and international law."

Map showing the route taken by the Bayern

Security partners across continents

In the near future, any German naval unit bound for Asia may take a less controversial route. Former NATO general Egon Ramms expects such trips to be more frequent, following on from NATO's new Strategic Concept, which also emphasizes cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific. 

While German fighter pilots were flying low over northern Australia in August, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles was touring Germany. In an opinion piece for the national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Marles wrote that he was impressed with the rapid deployment of the Bundeswehr jets and saw this as a sign of the "growing resolve of German-Australian cooperation on security issues in the region."

This article was originally written in German.

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