23 August 2023

Australian Navy vessels sail in contested waters in South China Sea

| Andrew McLaughlin
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HMAS Canberra

HMAS Canberra in Darwin on 14 August where it loaded Filipino troops for the exercise. Photo: ADF.

Two Royal Australian Navy ships have this week joined in an exercise with the US Navy and forces from the Philippines near a disputed region of the South China Sea.

The vessels – HMAS Canberra and ANZAC – have been participating in the wider Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2023 engagement, which has been underway since 5 July.

Indo-Pacific Endeavour is an annual diplomatic and defence partnership event that sees Australian military vessels and aircraft conduct exercises, training, port calls and community engagements over 10 weeks with a number of countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

For the 2023 iteration, the vessels and aircraft will visit 14 nations and conduct activities with Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Maldives, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

“Indo-Pacific Endeavour demonstrates Defence’s commitment to investing in regional partnerships and the contribution we can make with our partners to a peaceful, secure and prosperous region,” Chief of Joint Operations Major General Greg Bilton said in July.

“It is another example of the Australian Defence Force’s efforts to encourage deep, sustained and effective engagement with our partners in Southeast Asia and the Northeast Indian Ocean.”

READ ALSO Allies gather across northern Australia for largest military exercise in years

This week’s exercise with the US and Philippines – dubbed Exercise Alon – is an element of Indo-Pacific Endeavour, an amphibious exercise with Filipino troops being deployed ashore from HMAS Canberra by US Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.

Nearly 700 Filipino troops embarked aboard HMAS Canberra in Darwin Harbour on 14 August.

The exercise is being held off the west coast of the Philippine island of Palawan, very close to the disputed reef of Second Thomas Shoal, which the Chinese Communist Party claims as part of its spurious ‘9-Dash Line’ territorial claim comprising most of the South China Sea.

But due to its geographical proximity, it is also claimed by the Philippines who, to stake a claim on the shoal, deliberately ran an old World War 2-era landing ship aground on the north-western corner of the shoal in 1999. Despite constant harassment from the Chinese Coast Guard and paramilitary ‘fishing boats’, the Philippines Marines Corps has maintained a garrison on board the rusting hulk – the Sierra Madre – ever since.

Chinese vessels also harass Filipino fishing and paramilitary vessels operating in the South China Sea, often using water cannons or even ramming the smaller vessels.

In contravention of the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLAWS), other features in the South China Sea – many of which were previously underwater at high tide – have been reclaimed and built upon in massive engineering projects by China over the past two decades. Some of these now have ports, runways, hangars and air defence systems installed.

One such island is the aptly named Mischief Reef – previously a featureless atoll that now has a sheltered deep water harbour and a 2.5 km long runway capable of accommodating all but the largest People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force and navy combat and surveillance aircraft – which lies just 32 km west of the Sierra Madre’s position.

When transiting the South China Sea, US Navy vessels have occasionally conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPs, where they sail within 12 nautical miles of these reclaimed islands, much to China’s consternation. While it is unlikely any Australian vessels will attempt a FONOP, their proximity to Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef, in particular, is likely to be closely watched by the PLA.

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It has been suggested HMAS Canberra might join up with the US amphibious vessel USS America and Japanese helicopter carrier JS Izumo – both of which participated in Exercise Talisman Sabre off Queensland recently – to perform a unified show-of-force through the area sometime this week.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will visit Manilla on 8 September for the first visit of an Australian PM to the Philippines in two decades.

In a 21 August press conference in Melbourne, Mr Albanese was asked about the exercise. “This is business as usual,” he explained.

“Australia conducts activities in our region. This is a part of Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2023, which is our flagship program.”

If the show-of-force occurs, it could coincide with a visit to the Philippines by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles. Mr Marles will observe the exercise and meet Filipino Secretary for National Defense Gilberto Teodoro.

“My visit underlines the Government’s commitment to investing in our partnerships in Southeast Asia. Partnerships that support a more peaceful, stable and prosperous region,” he said in a 22 August release.

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