Five Australian warships are conducting military exercises in the Philippine Sea alongside the American and Japanese navies, amid simmering regional security tensions with China.
The military activity coincides with a warning from US Defence Secretary Mark Esper that America will step up its challenges to Beijing’s territorial claims in the region.
An Australian Joint Task Group, led by HMAS Canberra, has joined up with the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and a Japanese destroyer for a “trilateral exercise” ahead of larger-scale war games in Hawaii.
Commander of the Australian Joint Task Group, Commodore Michael Harris, said the opportunity to work alongside Japan and the US was invaluable.
“Maintaining security and safety at sea requires navies to be able to cooperate seamlessly,” Commodore Harris said in a statement released by the Defence Department.
“The combined activities between our navies demonstrates a high degree of interoperability and capability between Australia, Japan and the US.”
Over the next two days the three navies will conduct various training exercises aimed at improving interoperability as they work to keep the Indo-Pacific region “free and open”.
The Joint Task Group left Darwin on July 5 for a regional deployment to Southeast Asia and will then head to Hawaii to participate in Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC).
Captain Sakano Yusuke, Commander of Japan’s Escort Division 4, said strengthening cooperation with the US Navy and Royal Australian Navy was vitally important for Japan and contributed to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
“The experience in this exercise will give us tactical and operational advantages and make our friendships stronger, in addition to our regular joint exercises with both like-minded navies,” he said.
China accused of ‘systematic rule breaking’
As American warships exercised alongside the Australian and Japanese navies in the Philippine Sea, Mr Esper accused Beijing of exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to tighten its control of the nearby South China Sea.
“We want to deter against coercive behaviour by the Chinese in the South China Sea,” he told the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“And, most concerning for me, the People’s Liberation Army continues its aggressive behaviour in the East and South China Seas.”
Speaking from Washington, the Pentagon boss also signalled the US military would conduct more Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“In 2019 we conducted the greatest number of Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea in the 40-year history of the FONOPS program, and we will keep up the pace this year,” he said.
While condemning Chinese maritime activity, he expressed hope that he could visit China by the end of the year to discuss areas of mutual interest.
“Before the year is out, I hope to visit the PRC for the first time as Secretary in order to enhance cooperation on areas of common interest, establish the systems necessary for crisis communications and reinforce our intentions to openly compete in the international system,” he said.
By Andrew Greene