Two major military exercises threaten to raise tensions with China and North Korea

Exercise Pitch Black and Ulchi Freedom Shield are bigger than previous years’ maneuvers.
By RFA Staff
Two major military exercises threaten to raise tensions with China and North Korea U.S.-Australia joint training exercise Aug. 15, 2022.
U.S. Pacific Air Force

A large-scale multinational air force exercise led by the U.S. and Australia got underway in Northern Australia, with Germany taking part for the first time in what an analyst calls a “greater response from Europe” to security challenges in Asia.

At the same time, the U.S. and South Korea began their biggest combined military exercise in four years on Monday as tensions remain high in the region after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. 

Exercise Pitch Black, which has been held every two years since 1981 but was paused for four years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has come back with more participating countries than ever.

Three first-timers, Germany, Japan and South Korea, are among the 17 nations taking part.  They have sent 100 aircraft and 2,500 personnel to take part in drills that are taking place from Aug. 19 until Sept. 8.

Exercise Pitch Black aims to "enhance regional security through multinational interoperability and understanding," according to a statement from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

The exercise will include day and night flying and “features a range of realistic, simulated threats which can be found in a modern battle-space environment,” the RAAF said, noting that Exercise Pitch Black demonstrates “the high value we place on regional security and fostering closer ties throughout the Indo-Pacific region.”

Beijing has repeatedly criticized U.S.-led security initiatives and activities in the Indo-Pacific, calling them attempts by the West to forge “an Asian version of NATO.”


A Singapore Air Force tanker conducting aerial refueling for German Eurofighters at this year’s Exercise Pitch Black . CREDIT: German Air Force

‘Response from Europe’

Chinese state media said Exercise Pitch Black is designed “to pull more countries into an anti-China united frontline and show the unity of the West to pressure China over the Taiwan question.”

The exercise “may add oil to the flames as the Asia-Pacific region is experiencing instability with the U.S.' rampant provocations in the region,” said the hawkish Chinese tabloid Global Times.

“I think the Chinese are seeking to use it to try to pressure a new Australian government to distance themselves from the U.S.,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank.

“They will fail in these efforts,” Davis said.

Chinese analysts were quoted in state-run media as saying that exercises such as Pitch Black, with participants coming from all corners of the world, maygive an illusion that many countries have been rallied to counter a certain country” – China.

Germany deployed six Eurofighter Typhoons and support aircraft to the exercise.

German Air Force chief Ingo Gerhartz denied that Berlin’s participation in the exercise was “sending any threatening message towards China.”

Gerhartz told reporters last week that the German aircraft would use civilian air traffic routes and that no passage of the Taiwan Strait was planned, according to Reuters.

"We will fly at an altitude of more than 10 kilometers [6 miles] and barely touch the South China Sea, and we will move on international routes." 

Yet the presence of German Eurofighters indicates that E.U. states “recognize the challenge that China poses to the international system,” said ASPI’s Davis.

“There is a greater response from Europe and not just focused on European security issues,” he added.

“The worst signal would be to cancel exercises under Chinese pressure that would reinforce Beijing's perspective that the U.S. lacks resolve and only encourage them to be more aggressive vis a vis Taiwan and the South China Sea,” the analyst told RFA.

Exercise Ulchi Freedom Shield

Meanwhile agencies reported that the annual U.S.-South Korea military drills Ulchi Freedom Shield (UFS) started on Monday.

This year’s drills are reportedly the largest in four years and will continue for ten days, involving tens of thousands of troops from the two nations’ armies, navies, and air forces.

In the last few years, the UFS has been virtual because of COVID and also to make room for diplomatic negotiations with North Korea.  

With the drills taking place in South Korea again, North Korea has “denounced the exercise as a dress rehearsal for northward invasion,” Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.


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