Combat Exercises in Southeast Asia

German Bundeswehr expands combat exercises in the Asia-Pacific region – at a time when the USA conducts record maneuvers in Southeast Asia and China seeks to secure military influence.

SINGAPORE/BERLIN (Own report) – The German Bundeswehr is continuing its combat exercises in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and will deploy more naval and air force units to the Asia-Pacific region next year. This was confirmed by the German Defense Ministry on the occasion of Minister Boris Pistorius’ current visit to Asia that began at the end of last week in Singapore. As the first German defense minister in a long time, Pistorius attended the Shangri-La Dialogue, currently the most important security conference in Asia and held talks with his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen. Singapore, which spends three percent of its GDP on the military – over US $10 billion a year – is not only the US forces’ most important cooperation partner in the region, but also one of the major non-NATO customers of German arms exports, and is intensifying its cooperation with the Bundeswehr. At the same time, the USA is expanding its combat drills in Southeast Asia to record highs, while China is seeking to prevent Western military influence from becoming too significant.

Important Arms Customer

The city-state Singapore, which spends considerable funds on its military – US $10 billion in 2021, 3.0 percent of its GDP – has been, already for years, one the major non-NATO customers of German armament companies. In 2020, the German government approved arms exports, worth nearly a quarter of a billion euros, to Singapore’s armed forces. In 2021, exports reached a total of 630 million euros. Germany has recently been the country’s third largest supplier of heavy weaponry, behind France and the USA. The supply included more than 200 Leopard 2 battle tanks and other armored vehicles, particularly armored recovery vehicles and armored vehicle-launched bridges, as well as anti-tank weapons and ammunition. Above all, however, Germany is an important provider for Singapore’s navy, whose larger combat ships are predominantly German model, which are either delivered from Germany or are produced under license in Singapore. In late 2022, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz personally participated in Kiel at the launching ceremony of two of the Singapore-bound submarines. ( reported.[1]

Military Cooperation Partner

In addition to the extensive arms exports, cooperation has recently been steadily expanding with Singapore’s armed forces – comprising around 72,000 soldiers, a high number, given a population of just over 5.6 million, of whom only 3.5 million are nationals. Due in part to the fact that the densely populated city-state does not have any extensive areas that can be used for military purposes, Singapore’s armored troops regularly exercise on German training grounds, previously in Bergen and now in the Oberlausitz. Singaporean submarine crews are also trained in Germany. In turn, a German navy liaison officer is stationed at the Information Fusion Centre (IFC) in Singapore, a clearly Western dominated institution, which shares information on regional maritime security including on arms and drug smuggling, piracy and maritime terrorism.[2] The military cooperation is considered particularly significant, because Singapore is situated directly at the Strait of Malacca and, thus, on the most important sea route between East Asia and the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The city-state cooperates intensively with the US Armed Forces.[3]

German Warships in the Pacific

All this is in line with the fact that Singapore plays an important role in the Bundeswehr’s recent Asia-Pacific activities. Already the frigate Bayern, which cruised the Indian and Pacific Oceans from August 2021 to February 2022, had made a stopover in Singapore and participated in joint exercises with the Singaporean Navy. The German Air Force squadron touched down in Singapore last year as well on its way to maneuvers in Australia. Part of the unit stopped at the city-state for more exercises on its return trip. As the Bundeswehr, on the occasion of Defense Minister Boris Pistorius’ trip to Asia has confirmed, this summer, it will participate with paratroopers and naval battalion special forces in the Talisman Sabre 23 maneuvers in Australia and, next year, send an air force squadron to Australia and 2 German battleships to the Pacific. The latter are scheduled to participate in the major US Rim of the Pacific maneuvers as well as support the US led naval surveillance operations to monitor the UN embargo on North Korea.[4] It is not yet known whether they will again make a stopover in Singapore, however, with the expansion of the bilateral military cooperation, it would seem highly likely.

Record Maneuvers

The intensification of German participation in Asian-Pacific regional maneuvers is taking place at a time when the United States is carrying out record-breaking maneuvers in Southeast Asia, in its attempts to intensify its control over the region and displace China as much as possible. Washington had expanded the number of soldiers that took part in last summer’s US-Indonesian Super Garuda Shield to more than 5,000 soldiers from 14 countries, making them the largest since the regularly held drills were established in 2009. Australia, Japan, and Singapore were joining for the first time.[5] This year, from February 28, to March 10, more than 6,000 US soldiers – more than ever before – participated in the Cobra Gold exercises in Thailand. These exercises have been regularly held for decades, and are considered the largest held on the Southeast Asian mainland. Altogether, nearly 10,000 troops from 30 countries participated.[6] In April, the Philippines and the United States launched their largest-ever joint military exercises. Nearly 18,000 troops were participating – about 12,200 American, 5,400 Filipino and just over 100 Australian soldiers.[7]

Limit US Influence

China is also reinforcing its military exercises with various Southeast Asian countries, for example with Indonesia. In late 2022, the defense ministers of both countries agreed that their armed forces should more closely cooperate and resume the joint military training and exercises paused by the COVID-19 pandemic.[8] In April, a joint naval maneuver with Singapore followed, as well as a naval patrol with Vietnam – led for the first time by the commanders of both countries’ coast guards. The latter measure is noteworthy, because China and Vietnam have traditionally been rivals and, for years, the United States has been systematically seeking to pit Hanoi against Beijing.[9] Observers note that according to the Chinese military strategy, joint exercises with foreign militaries particularly serve as a means to deepen mutual understanding, and enhance mutual political and military trust – as well as to prevent the countries in question from entering in an exclusive military alliance with the United States against China.[10] A recent analysis of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute has concluded that China already exerts a stronger military influence in Southeast Asia than the United States.[11]

Fighting the Cold War

With the exception of the Philippines, which recently made a drastic change of course and has since been seeking to project itself as a loyal partisan of its former colonial power, the USA,[12] Southeast Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose sides in the power struggle between the United States and China – including Singapore, where the Bundeswehr is seeking to enhance its influence. “No one wants to be in a position, where we either have to contain China’s rise or limit America’s presence,” Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, Lawrence Wong, declared at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Nobody in Southeasts Asia “wants to see a new Cold War.”[13] This does not stop Berlin from stepping up the struggle for influence with combat exercises in Southeast Asia.


[1] See also “Bloc Politics” in Southeast Asia.

[2] The Singapore Information Fusion Centre’s Role in Maritime Security. 11.12.2022.

[3] U.S. Security Cooperation With Singapore. 12.04.2023.

[4] Verteidigungsminister Pistorius besucht die Indo-Pazifik-Region.

[5] Niniek Karmini: US, Indonesia Hold Joint Military Drills Amid China Concerns. 04.08.2022.

[6] Nontarat Phaicharoen: US, Thailand kick off Cobra Gold 2023 military exercises. 28.02.2023.

[7] Philippines, US Kick Off Largest-Ever Joint Military Drills. 11.04.2023.

[8] China, Indonesia eye to strengthen military cooperation. 21.11.2022.

[9] Huang Panyue: China, Vietnam carry out first joint patrol in Beibu Gulf in 2023. 14.04.2023.

[10] Narantsatsral Enkhbat: China’s Joint Military Drills With Southeast Asian Nations. 03.06.2023.

[11] Till Fähnders: China und die USA buhlen um Südostasien. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 02.06.2023.

[12] See also Militarization of the First Island Chain.

[13] Chun Han Wong: Military Leaders Warn U.S.-China Divide Threatens to Bring Down ‘Iron Curtain’ in Asia. 04.06.2023.