On Monday, Australia’s biggest warship participated in drills with the Philippines and the US in the disputed South China Sea as part of Canberra and Manila’s first-ever bilateral amphibious exercises.
The drills, dubbed Exercise Alon, kicked off on August 14 and will be held until August 31 as part of Australia’s annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour, which involves Australia’s armed forces visiting other countries in the region. Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles is traveling to the Philippines to observe some of the exercises.
Exercise Alon involves more than 2,500 personnel, including about 1,200 from Australia, 1,200 from the Philippines, and 150 US Marines stationed in Darwin, Australia. The US has been encouraging its allies in the region to increase joint military cooperation as part of its strategy against China.
HMAS Canberra, Australia’s largest warship, was one of several vessels that took part in the exercises in the South China Sea on Monday off the coast of the western Philippine province of Palawan.
According to AFP, the ships were involved in air assault drills about 125 miles from the Spratly Islands, where Second Thomas Shoal is located, a reef that’s been the source of recent tensions between China and the Philippines.
Chinese Coast Guard vessels recently blocked Philippine boats from resupplying a ship that Manila grounded on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to assert its claim to the reef. After the incident, the US reaffirmed that the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty applies to attacks on Philippine vessels in the South China Sea, demonstrating how the region has turned into a potential flashpoint for a major conflict.
The US and Australia are also planning to hold drills with Japan in the South China Sea this week, which will involve the deployment of one of Japan’s largest warships, the helicopter carrier JS Izumo. The US is expected to deploy the USS America, a US Navy amphibious assault ship.