In a reiteration of commitment towards the Indo-Pacific amid a volatile global order, 17 countries, including India, are participating in ‘Pitch Black’, the Royal Australian Air Force’s iconic biennial multinational exercise. While it is one of the several military engagements to reinforce the Indo-Pacific partnership among like-minded countries, Pitch Black 2022 stands out for an unusual display of enthusiasm by two of the European Union’s biggest powers, France and a debutant Germany. Both are participating with impressive military fervour and gusto.
This enthusiasm is hitherto unheard of for a country like Germany, with its deep ties and dependencies on both Russia and China, as is the “unprecedented” involvement of the only European resident Indo-Pacific power, France. The other major non-EU power, the United Kingdom, is anyway a traditional ally of the US world over.
Pitch Black 2022 is a typical war-gaming exercise where threats are simulated in a controlled environment to test force integration, interoperability and readiness. This year it is unfolding in the skies of Northern Australia from 19 August to 9 September. The exercise is hosting about 2,500 personnel and up to 100 aircraft including participants from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, UAE, US and UK. In that sense, it is a convergence of the major NATO powers and partners, the Quad, the Five Eyes, and half of the ASEAN.
First significant development is that Germany, Japan, and the Republic of Korea are participating fully for the first time. Second, with the burgeoning participation of non-resident European powers, the two traditionally disconnected security theatres of Euro Atlantic and Indo Pacific are merging further with converging contours slowly becoming more pronounced.
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Germany’s impressive debut
One of the many tectonic shifts that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine precipitated in Europe was a reluctant Germany shaken up to face stark realities of its military unpreparedness, lack of a comprehensive security worldview and its asymmetric economic reliance of both Russia and China. When Olaf Scholz, leader of the three-party coalition, became Germany’s Chancellor a few months before the Ukraine War, he had aspired for a futuristic reform process with a goal to make the German economy resilient and play a bigger role in the EU’s prosperity. This aspiration rested on stable energy supplies from Russia as an integral part of the plan.
That said, the current German realisation of looming dangers in Europe appears contradictory because, simply put, it can neither do with Russia or China, nor without them. Hence, Germany’s outreach to the Indo-Pacific is a variable that is directly connected with seeking a more comprehensive security for itself and Europe, but is also operating beyond the constraining Russia-China matrix. The Indo-Pacificregion is crucial to developing new forms of resilient economic cooperation and trusted connections, a bus that Germany doesn’t want to miss.
Scholz has pledged significantly more defence spending on Europe’s security. And to provide a framework for this re-engagement, foreign affairs minister Annalena Baerbock presented the outlines of Germany’s first “National Security Strategy” in March 2022, taken in conjunction with another important document that connected the economic and security interests of Germany and the Indo-Pacific, the German Indo-Pacific Strategy 2020. These two endeavours together explain the journey of Berlin’s strategic engagement with the Indo-Pacific.
From deploying a Brandenburg-class frigate, the Bayern, on a half-year-long mission to the Indo-Pacific to directly follow up on its revamped security policy and now participating in the Pitch Black, Germany has indeed shown some credible commitment. This credibility is further proven by the size of one of the largest peacetime deployments of the German contingent. For the Pitch Black, Germany has sent 13 aircrafts — comprising six Eurofighter jets, three A330 tankers, and four A400M transporters. Called “Rapid Pacific 2022 Deployment”, the aim is to reach Singapore within 24 hours and then quickly deploy to Darwin in Australia’s northern coast.
To all who are listening and reading between the lines, the German Air Force chief said, “We want to demonstrate that we can be in Asia within a day.” Following Pitch Black, the German Air Force fleet will train with the Republic of Singapore Air Force, and sub-fleets will also visit Japan and South Korea.
Does that mean Germany will be touching China’s sore points too? The short answer is ‘No’. Much like the Frigate Bayern that did not touch the contested regions in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Straits, German jets would steer clear of these two regions as well. It is evident that reckless taking a bull by its horn is not in Berlin’s strategic calculus for engaging the Indo-Pacific. Germany’s overtures are aimed at overseas power projections in key strategic locations, especially as tensions are on an all-time high in the Indo-Pacific, and contributing with like-minded partners in preserving an order that it considers most conducive to its own interests and values.
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While Germany’s impressive debut is a salient strategic shift, the case of France is even more interesting because it is indicative of a significant reset of fractured France-Australia relations from the ‘stab in the back’, the infamous AUKUS submarine deal.
For France too, reset has come from a realisation of a larger convergence matrix over upholding a rules-based order and freedom of navigation in high seas. These fault lines were not conducive for exploring the joint potential of Europe’s Indo-Pacific outreach by and large. However, that does not imply that the internal tensions among European powers are all settled.
France is the only resident European power in the Indo-Pacific with territory and citizens. During the 2019 Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, France unveiled the “French Defence Strategy in the Indo-Pacific,” which was completed in July 2021.
France’s military presence in the region
France is also the only EU country to have permanently prepositioned forces in the Indo-Pacific and regular warship, submarine, or aircraft deployments. France systematically carries out high-level joint exercises with its strategic partners such as India, Japan, the US, and Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam in Southeast Asia. France has the required assets to facilitate the maritime security of this region with ballistic missile submarines, aircraft carriers, and naval bases.
France has codenamed its Pitch Black deployment “Pégase 22”, which aims to demonstrate its capacity for long-distance air power projection. In a tactical and strategic sense, both France and Germany are playing up a politics of presence in the region. While the Germans have been more careful about not instigating China, the French have been more direct and provocative in their approach to China as the 2020 naval deployments that included a nuclear submarine in the region suggest.
Behind the politically correct optics of upholding values in the Indo-Pacific, wariness is brewing towards the militarisation in the South China Sea, the recent dangerous brinkmanship in the Taiwan Straits, a return of great power and, in plain words, containment of China’s self-professed belligerence for unilaterally altering the status quo. The jagged ends of China’s meteoric rise have cut through the fragile edifice of liberal order that no one country, regardless of military capabilities, could handle on its own. Wriggling out of global dependencies on Beijing’s economic statecraft will take sustained efforts at multiple intersectional levels if international law has to prevail despite flagrant breaches.
Indian Sukhoi-30s and C-17s are also participating in the Pitch black 2022 as India enjoys its central position in the key strategic maritime domain.
India’s approach, however, is centered on the positive interpretation of cooperation with friends and partners rather than overtly containing the elephant in the room – China.
The writer is an Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia Center, at the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses. She tweets @swasrao. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)