SYDNEY • The United States and Australia kicked off a massive joint biennial military exercise yesterday, with Japan taking part for the first time as tensions with China over territorial rows loom over the drills. The two-week "Talisman Sabre" exercise in the Northern Territory and Queensland state involves 30,000 personnel from the US and Australia practising operations at sea, in the air and on land.
About 40 personnel from Japan's army - the Ground Self-Defence Force - will join the American contingent, while more than 500 troops from New Zealand are also involved in the exercise, which concludes on July 21.
"It is a very, very important alliance," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said last Friday in Sydney on board the USS Blue Ridge, which is taking part in the exercise, referring to Australia-US 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."
There's a 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.
DR JOHN LEE, China specialist at the University of Sydney
The war games are being held for the sixth time. They come as China flexes 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 Japan over the Tokyo-controlled Senkaku islands - which it calls the Diaoyus - in the East China Sea.
"There's a 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 Dr 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 US criticism of its reclamation works in the South China Sea during the annual Shangri-La Dialogue meeting in May in Singapore, saying it was just exercising its sovereignty.
The US has been pursuing a foreign policy "pivot" towards Asia, which has worried China. The US 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, Mr Abbott described his counterpart 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 Dr Lee said would be fully integrated with US weapons systems.
America's other allies - such as Singapore, Malaysia, India, Vietnam and the Philippines - would be supportive of the exercise, as well as Australia and Japan's activities in the region, Dr 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, said Asian security specialist Craig Snyder of Deakin University, as Mr Abe's right-wing government tries to increase Tokyo's participation in regional security.