Australia’s largest warship took part in joint drills with the Philippines and the United States in the disputed South China Sea as they sought to strengthen defence ties in the face of China’s growing military presence.
China deploys hundreds of coast guard, navy and other vessels to patrol and militarise reefs in the contested waters, which it claims almost entirely despite an international ruling that its position has no legal basis.
HMAS Canberra is one of several ships involved in Exercise Alon in the Philippines, being held for the first time as part of Australia’s annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour activity. Alon is Tagalog for “wave”.
More than 2,000 troops from Australia and the Philippines are taking part in the August 14-31 air, sea and land exercises. About 150 US Marines are also participating.
Monday’s simulated air assault in the south of the Philippine island of Palawan happened around 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the Spratly Islands, where longstanding tensions between Manila and Beijing have flared.
“Like the Philippines, Australia wants a peaceful, stable and prosperous region which respects sovereignty and which is guided by rules-based order,” Hae Kyong Yu, Australia’s ambassador to Manila, said at Tarumpitao Point Airfield.
Such exercises were “critical” because “through these we are putting our words into action”, she said.
The United States, Japan and Australia will also hold joint naval exercises off the Philippines this week.
“That’s always been the plan,” Captain Phillipa Hay, commander of the Australian Amphibious Task Force, told reporters on board the HMAS Canberra.
“Those ships have come from Talisman Sabre (exercises in Australia) and everyone is on their way home, it’s very normal for us to train in company with partners when we proceed to and from exercises.”
The drills come after a Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys was blocked by Chinese Coast Guard vessels using water cannon on August 5, triggering a diplomatic spat and international outrage.
One of the charter boats carrying supplies to the outpost was prevented from reaching the shoal, while the other succeeded in unloading its cargo.
The Philippine military has said it will send more supplies to the remote outpost, where a handf ul of Filipino marines are stationed on a rusty navy vessel.
The BRP Sierra Madre was deliberately grounded on the reef in 1999 to check China’s advance in the waters.
China has demanded the Philippines remove the vessel and defended its actions as “professional”.
Australia has also locked in a deal to buy potent long-range weapons from the United States, officials said on Monday.
The cache of more than 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles — costing $830 million — would be some of the “most powerful and technologically advanced” weapons in Australia’s arsenal, the country’s defence department said.
“We are investing i n the capabilities our Defence Force needs to hold our adversaries at risk further from our shores and keep Australians safe in the complex and uncertain world in which we live today,” Defence Minister Richard Marles said in a statement.
The Tomahawk cruise missiles have a strike range of more than 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) and will be carried by the Australian navy’s Hobart Class destroyers.
They will eventually be used by the roving nuclear-powered submarines acquired by Australia under the landmark AUKUS pact.
Australia’s AUKUS allies — the UK and the United States — are the only other countries with significant stockpiles of Tomahawk missiles.
“As we enter what many are calling the missile age, these will be vital tools for the Australian Defence Force to do its job of defending Australians,” Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy said.
Canberra said in January that it had snapped up a US offer to also obtain HIMARS rockets — the mobile artillery system used by the Ukrainian army to devastating effect.