Australia ‘Flexes Muscle’ In South China Sea; Conducts 1st Aerial Assault Drills With The Philippines In Beijing’s Backyard

On August 21, Australia and the Philippines conducted their first major joint aerial assault training exercise in the contested South China Sea, reinforcing their defense alliances in response to China’s increasingly assertive military presence. 

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This joint exercise is being conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Australian Defense Force (ADF) as part of the ongoing Exercise Alon, scheduled to occur from August 14 to 31.

Australia’s largest warship, HMAS Canberra, is among the fleet of vessels participating in Exercise Alon in the Philippines, which is being integrated into Australia’s annual Indo-Pacific Endeavor regional activity for the first time. 

This event, spanning from August 14 to 31, involves over 2,000 troops from Australia and the Philippines, including approximately 150 US Marines, in comprehensive air, sea, and land exercises.

In a statement, AFP public affairs office chief Lt. Col. Enrico Gil Ileto said, “This marked the first major training serial as part of the bilateral cooperation between the AFP and the ADF as part of the latter’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour (IPE) activities for 2023.”

HMAS Canberra (III) | Royal Australian Navy
HMAS Canberra (III) – Royal Australian Navy

The exercise encompassed coordinated air, land, and sea maneuvers to simulate realistic combat situations, augmenting the forces’ readiness and operational capabilities.

Ileto mentioned that the air assault exercise at Punta Baja in Rizal, Palawan entailed the deployment of ground combat units through MV-22B “Osprey” tilt-rotor aircraft from the Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D). 

These aircraft were launched from the Royal Australian Navy’s landing helicopter dock, HMAS Canberra (LO2), to insert troops at the Punta Baja Airfield on August 20.

Furthermore, the helicopter assault unit successfully established connectivity with the 3rd Marine Brigade to ensure the safety of the Punta Baja Airfield, concurrently establishing a forward arming and refueling point.

Hae Kyong Yu, Australia’s ambassador to Manila, said at Tarumpitao Point Airfield: “Like the Philippines, Australia wants a peaceful, stable, and prosperous region that respects sovereignty and which is guided by rules-based order.” 

Australia, US & Japan To Hold Drills

Scheduled for this week, joint naval exercises involving the United States, Japan, and Australia are also poised to unfold in the waters near the Philippines.

Captain Phillipa Hay, at the helm of the Australian Amphibious Task Force, explained during a media briefing aboard the HMAS Canberra that this coordinated training endeavor had been a consistent element of their strategy. 

She elaborated that the ships involved have just concluded their participation in the Talisman Sabre exercises in Australia and, as per customary practice, are engaging in joint training with allied nations while transitioning to and from exercises.

These exercises follow a recent incident where Chinese Coast Guard vessels employed water cannon to obstruct a Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys on August 5, provoking a diplomatic dispute and global condemnation.

While one of the chartered boats carrying provisions to the outpost was thwarted from reaching the shoal, the other vessel managed to unload its cargo.

USS America (LHA-6) - Wikipedia
USS America (LHA-6) – Wikipedia

In response, the Philippine military intends to dispatch further supplies to the secluded outpost, where a small contingent of Filipino marines are stationed aboard a weathered navy vessel.

Nonetheless, in a display of collective strength, the upcoming drill will witness three aircraft and helicopter carriers sailing in unison, engaging in joint exercises.

Among the participants, the Royal Australian Navy will contribute HMAS Canberra, equipped with helicopters, as per one of the officials, who further noted that the joint drill had been prearranged a few months ago.

The United States is set to deploy its amphibious assault ship, USS America, while Japan will dispatch one of its most significant warships, the helicopter carrier JS Izumo.

As for the Philippines, logistical limitations within its military infrastructure prevent participation in this week’s drills. Nonetheless, the nation remains open to joining such exercises in the future. 

Don McLain Gill, a Philippines-based geopolitical analyst, told the EurAsian Times: “The trilateral exercise between the US, Japan, and Australia represents an important form of signaling by the three countries towards their desire to be consistent and steadfast in strengthening maritime security partnership with Manila.”

“While the Philippines will not be part of this particular exercise, it remains closely involved through direct coordination. It was reported that the three countries’ commanders would meet with their Philippine counterparts in Manila after the drills,” Gill added. 

He further emphasized that beyond all else, the location for this exercise holds paramount significance for safeguarding Philippine sovereignty.

Gill noted, “Furthermore, such engagements also serve as a reminder to China that all four countries are committed to securing the rules-based order, particularly in the South China Sea.”

Overall, the joint military drills amid escalating tensions demonstrate the dedication of the US and its allies to maintain order in the region.