“We want to demonstrate that we can be in Asia within a day.”
That’s what the chief of the German Air Force, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, recently told Defense News. He was speaking on the heels of Germany sending a large air force contingent to participate in this year’s iteration of “Pitch Black,” the Australian air force’s biennial multinational exercise.
At least 15 nations – including India – will take part in Pitch Black 2022, which will unfold in the Northern Territories from August 19 to September 9. This is the first time the German Air Force is taking part in the exercise.
Just days before the German deployment, France too sent an air force contingent on a long-distance mission to participate in Pitch Black 2022. A statement released by the French embassy in New Delhi called the deployment “unprecedented.”
As Europe struggles to push Russia out of Ukraine, Berlin and Paris are making big moves thousands of miles away, in a region that is squarely in the middle of a transformative geopolitical shift. What do these developments mean?
A New Player
The German contingent of 13 aircraft – comprising of six Eurofighter jets, three A330 tankers, and four A400M transporters – amounts to one of its largest peacetime deployment so far. Berlin is calling it the “Rapid Pacific 2022 deployment.” The aim is to reach Singapore within 24 hours and then quickly deploy to Darwin in Australia’s northern coast.
The German deployment is noteworthy largely because German military assets are not frequent visitors in what is now known as the Indo-Pacific region. Unlike some of the other Western powers, Berlin has shown little interest in flexing its military muscle in this part of the world. This is primarily because Germany isn’t a resident power in the Indo-Pacific and has so far relied on development, rather than strategic, partnerships to deepen its geopolitical footprint.
But the needle may be shifting. In September 2020, under the chancellorship of Angela Merkel, Berlin announced its arrival in the region by releasing the “Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific.”
“The Federal Government will step up its security policy engagement in the Indo-Pacific region,” the document announced unambiguously. This included expanding “security and defense cooperation.”
Less than a year later, Germany deployed 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. That too was a unique deployment, as Berlin chose to make a unilateral move in a maritime space that isn’t its usual strategic playfield.
Earlier this year, American analyst, Blake Herzinger, noted in Foreign Policy that there was “something incongruous and half-hearted about the Bayern’s trip from the start.” He noted that during its deployment, the frigate avoided contentious maritime routes. This was a reflection of how wary Berlin was about not provoking anyone in the region – least of all China, with whom it has strong trade relations.
This time too, Germany is clearly cautious about pushing the wrong buttons. Gerhartz, the air force chief, was quoted by the media as saying that the jets will “barely touch” the South China Sea and won’t pass through the Taiwan Strait. He further said that Germany wasn’t “sending any threatening message towards China by flying to an exercise in Australia.”
It is clear the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who succeeded Merkel last year December, is keen on expanding his predecessor’s core commitments to Indo-Pacific security, but isn’t ready to take any reckless leaps of faith or get into a head-on tussle with Beijing.
That said, the latest long-range air deployments are still important. According to Gerhartz, the jets will conduct almost 200 midair refueling maneuvers. Tactically, they demonstrate Germany’s capability to initiate and sustain swift aerial deployments thousands of miles away from its own territory. Strategically, this is an exercise in overseas power projection. Together, they reflect Germany’s intent to establish itself as a core Indo-Pacific stakeholder, and maybe even a security guarantor.
In short, Berlin wants to show, without poking Beijing in the eye, that if the need arises, it can promptly send its jets to the Indo-Pacific. Hence, this is more of a show of capability than intent.
The Old Player
Like Germany, France is also participating in Pitch Black 22, although not for the first time. The French embassy in New Delhi called the 16,600-km long deployment by the French Air and Space Force a “major long-range mission in the Indo-Pacific.”
Codenamed “Pegase 22,” the first stage of this complex deployment “aims to demonstrate France’s capacity for long-distance air power projection by deploying an Air Force contingent from metropolitan France to the French territory of New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean in less than 72 hours.” Notably, as part of this deployment, three French Rafale jets and a support aircraft made a technical stopover at the Sulur Air Force station in Tamil Nadu, India, on August 10-11.
Paris’ deployment, in a purely tactical and strategic sense, is similar to Berlin’s. Both are designed to demonstrate long-distance aerial operational capability. Both reflect a growing European engagement with the “politics of presence” that is integral to the evolving Indo-Pacific construct.
However, unlike the Germans, the French are not new to the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, they are a “resident power” here. From the Mayotte and Reunion islands to New Caledonia and French Polynesia, France holds several territories in the southern Indian and Pacific Oceans. Thus, it has direct security interests in the region.
Compared to the Germans, the French have also been more conspicuous – some would say, provocative – in challenging China in its own “backyard.” Back in 2020 and 2021, the French deployed several navy ships – including a nuclear submarine – to patrol the hot waters of the Indo-Pacific. Earlier in 2019, it even sent a frigate through the Taiwan Strait. Its latest long-range air mission is just another addition to that line of deterrence-centric balancing moves.
That the French jets docked in India on the way is no surprise either. Under President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the India-France defense partnership has soared high. The important bit is that both sides are actively placing this relationship within the Indo-Pacific context.
What is also noteworthy is that Paris, after being miffed at the Australians for pulling the plug on their bilateral submarine deal last year, are now rebuilding bridges with Canberra. One could argue that the latest aerial deployment is also France’s way of announcing that the AUKUS won’t stop the Macron administration from deepening the French strategic depth in the Indo-Pacific. Interestingly, Paris also plans to deploy an aircraft carrier in the Indo-Pacific in 2025.
Protecting Whose Interests?
These cutting-edge European strategic deployments to the Indo-Pacific come hard on the heels of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing China-U.S. spat over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan. Not that they wouldn’t have come otherwise, but the tenseness in the geopolitical landscape makes these deployments more attention-worthy than usual for two reasons.
One, they reflect a growing focus in some European capitals toward China’s rising strategic clout in the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is possible that European assessments have begun to clearly identify China as a bigger threat than Russia. They wouldn’t be wrong, given the obvious reality of Beijing commanding much larger economic and political heft than Moscow.
Two, they intensify the geostrategic jostle in the region. With Beijing already fired up about the visits of Pelosi and then another U.S. congressional delegation, these deployments could be read as unwarranted provocation by the Chinese. It doesn’t matter if Germany narrowly dodges the South China Sea, if Beijing has to take offense, it will (as also argued by Herzinger in the context of the Bayern deployment).
They also set a precedent for other Western powers to add new, and potentially destabilizing, tactical maneuvers in the Indo-Pacific. This two-way escalation could quickly complicate foreign policy choices of small and middle powers in the region, such those in ASEAN, who do not wish to get caught in an ugly great power crossfire.
Thus, while assessing these latest European deployments, one ought to ask whose interests do they really serve – their own or those of what they call the “Indo-Pacific”?