By Sarah Marsh and Sabine Siebold
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany will expand its military presence in the Indo-Pacific by sending more warships and joining drills with allies as it keeps an eye on the "enormous" build-up of China's armed forces, the German defence chief told Reuters.
Germany is joining other Western nations in showing more muscle in the region amid growing alarm over Beijing's territorial ambitions.
Last year, Berlin sent its first warship in almost 20 years to the disputed waters of the South China Sea - at the risk of irking its top trade partner - and this month it sent 13 military aircraft to joint exercises in Australia.
General Eberhard Zorn told Reuters the Bundeswehr planned on sending troops to participate in training exercises in Australia next year, while the navy would send a fleet of several more ships to the region in 2024.
"This is how we want to consolidate our presence in the region," Zorn said in an interview at the defence ministry in Berlin.
Germany has historically been more timid in its security policy than its allies due to its role in two world wars, focusing more on trade in its international relations - with China's rapid economic expansion driving its own growth and the country becoming its top trade partner in 2016.
But partners have in recent years called on Germany to show more leadership, inkeeping with its might as Europe's largest economy and most populous country.
In 2020, Berlin published a new Indo-Pacific strategy with a focus on strengthening alliances with democracies in the region, marking a turning point. Then German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in February pledged a dramatic hike in spending on the military after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Tensions in the Indo-Pacific are running especially high at the moment after China carried out its largest-ever military drills around democratically-governed Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory, at the start of August.
Asked whether Germany might send a warship sailing through the Taiwan Strait as has the United States, Zorn said it was a sensitive matter decided upon at the highest political level.
"We do not want to provoke anyone with our presence but rather send a strong sign of solidarity with our allies," he said. "We stand for the freedom of navigation and the safeguarding of international norms."
Zorn said China's military strength once lay in its number of soldiers; now its armed forces were also getting technologically well equipped.
"We are observing an enormous buildup of Chinese forces," he said.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh, Editing by William Maclean)