In efforts to keep international waters “free and open,” five Australian warships have joined American and Japanese navies in conducting military exercises in the Philippine Sea in a reciprocal show of strength as tensions grow over China’s maritime ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region.
An Australian Joint Task Group, led by HMAS Canberra, joined the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and a Japanese destroyer for a “trilateral exercise” – three-sided or trigonal – as an effort to improve cooperation in keeping international waters “free and open.”
It follows maritime drills between a US Navy carrier strike group, led by USS Nimitz, and Indian warships near the vital Malacca Strait trading route, sending a strong signal to Beijing against the backdrop of a violent India-China border standoff last June 15.
The fatal face-off took place when soldiers from the Indian Army clashed with troops from the People’s Liberation Army close to Patrol Point 14 in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh, more than 4,300 meters above sea level.
The three-sided military cooperation also coincides with a warning from Washington that America will step up its challenges to Beijing’s territorial moves in the region, where several Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have overlapping claims.
Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally rejected “most” of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
“Strategic balancing against China is ramping up dramatically in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Prof. Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University and author of the newly-published Indo-Pacific Empire, which outlines the power struggle between China and the US.
Earlier this week, two Australian warships docked at Subic Bay in Olongapo City for a four-day goodwill visit in the country and will conduct maritime exercises in the West Philippine Sea dubbed Passing Exercises (PASSEX).
The exercise will be held as the two visiting warships – the long–range guided missile frigate HMAS Anzac and HMAS Success – sail out of Subic.
“The goodwill visit will be capped by a send-off ceremony and the customary Passing Exercises, which include a replenishment-at-sea operation wherein Philippine Navy personnel are invited to board the two warships while underway to observe the activity,” Navy spokesman Capt. Lued Lincuna said.
While in the country, the visiting Australian sailors will be engaging with their Filipino counterparts in various activities, including a luncheon aboard Anzac, goodwill games and a traditional boodle fight which will be held on April 14 at the headquarters of the Navy’s Naval Education and Training Command in San Antonio, Zambales.
Lincuna said Capt. Bradley White, Australia’s defense attaché to the Philippines and Cmdr. Michael Devine, commander of the Anzac and Comdr. Grant Zilko, commander of Success, are scheduled to make a courtesy call on Rear Admiral Allan Ferdinand Cusi, commander of the Navy’s NETC.
Medcalf told The Telegraph, a British broadsheet daily newspaper, the trilateral effort suggested a reminder to China that a cordon would be formed should confrontation escalate, adding “It’s a potent reminder that the combined navies of the quad – America, Japan, India, Australia – are more than enough to give China pause, and that Beijing’s own confrontational behaviour has brought them together.
“China simply cannot control the vast Indo-Pacific region over which its oil lifelines and quasi-colonial ambitions have spread – it needs to find a settling point before a crisis boils over.”
Recently, China has sparked alarm with increasingly assertive moves in disputed territories of the resource-rich South China Sea, and experts have warned against Chinese dominance in a region where commercial shipping lanes are key to global trade and could be exploited for economic coercion.
Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have claims over territory that Beijing maintains historic rights to, and concerns have grown over heavy Chinese investment in structures and facilities in the South China Sea, dredging through rocks and reefs to expand contested islands.
As the US has stepped up its freedom of navigation operations, China has bolstered its own military drills and last week deployed fighter jets to Woody Island in the Paracels, an archipelago also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
On Sunday, Chinese state media reported that the People’s Liberation Army also conducted live fire drills at an unspecified location in the South China Sea, launching more than 3,000 missiles at moving targets.
The South China Sea has become an increased source of tension between the US and China, who have simultaneously clashed over the coronavirus pandemic, trade issues, industrial espionage, human rights concerns in Xinjiang and Tibet and civil liberties in Hong Kong.
On Tuesday, Mark Esper, the US defense secretary, told the International Institute for Strategic Studies that US aircraft carriers in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific were “not going to be stopped by anybody” and would continue to “assert international law” and defend the sovereignty of friends and partners.