SYDNEY – The United States and Australia kicked off a massive joint biennial military exercise on Sunday, with Japan taking part for the first time amid looming tensions with China over territorial disagreements.
The two-week “Talisman Sabre” exercise in the Northern Territory and Queensland state involves 30,000 personnel from the U.S. and Australia practicing operations at sea, in the air and on land.
Some 40 personnel from the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) — were to join the American contingent, while more than 500 troops from New Zealand were also to take part in the exercise, which concludes July 21.
“It is a very, very important alliance,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday, referring to Australia-U.S ties.
“It’s a very important relationship and right now we are facing quite significant challenges in many parts of the world but particularly in the Middle East,” Abbott added in Sydney on board the USS Blue Ridge, which is taking part in the exercises.
The war games, being held for the sixth time, come as China continues to flex its strategic and economic muscle in the region.
Beijing has been building artificial islands and facilities in disputed waters in the South China Sea, and has a separate territorial dispute with Tokyo over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands — which it calls the Diaoyus — in the East China Sea.
“There’s subtle message going out that at every level — from hardware to technical and strategic expertise and cooperation — the main American allies and America are working very closely together largely to account for China,” said John Lee, a China specialist at the University of Sydney.
“It’s definitely linked to the notion that China is becoming more assertive and that it seems to be putting money into military capabilities to back up its assertiveness in the South China Sea in particular.”
Beijing rejected U.S. criticism of its reclamation works in the South China Sea during the annual Shangri-La Dialogue meeting in May, saying it was just exercising its sovereignty.
The U.S. has been pursuing a foreign policy “pivot” toward Asia, which has rattled China, and is rotating marines through northern Australia — a move announced by President Barack Obama in 2011.
While Beijing would not be pleased with Japan’s involvement in the drills, it would also not be surprised, experts said.
Australia has stepped up its relationship with Japan in recent years and last July, Abbott described Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “a very, very close friend” during a state visit to Canberra.
The Australian government is also considering buying Soryu-class submarines from Japan, which Lee, the China expert, said would be fully integrated with U.S. weapons systems.
“It’s a continuation of a deepening security relationship between Australia and Japan,” Andrew Davies, a senior defense capability analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said of Japan’s inclusion in the exercise.
“It’s been a work in progress for at least a decade now and it’s gathering pace, and Australia and Japan are looking for opportunities to do things together in the military space.”
At the same time, Washington’s regional strategic relationships were evolving even before Beijing’s recent actions, with a shift away from bilateral pacts toward multilateral alliances, Davies said.
America’s other allies — including Singapore, Malaysia, India, Vietnam and the Philippines — would be supportive of the exercise, as well as Australia and Japan’s activities in the region, Lee added.
“Undoubtedly it would be received very well because all the other countries are desperately hoping that America and capable allies can actually work together to counter China,” he said.
Japan’s involvement has in part also been driven by domestic politics, Asian security specialist Craig Snyder of Deakin University said, as Abe’s right-wing government tries to increase Tokyo’s participation in the regional security arena.