SYDNEY: The United States and Australia kicked off a massive joint biennial military exercise on Sunday, 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.
Some 40 personnel from Japan’s army — the Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) — 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,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said 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.”
The war games, being held for the sixth time, 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 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,” John Lee, a China specialist at the University of Sydney, told AFP.
“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, saying it was just exercising its sovereignty.
The US has been pursuing a foreign policy “pivot” towards Asia, which has rattled China, and is rotating Marines through northern Australia — a move announced by President Barack Obama in 2011.
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, Lee added.
AS the United States Seventh Fleet Command Ship USS Blue Ridge steamed up Sydney Harbour Prime Minister Tony Abbott told some of the 1100 sailors on board that they were a “comforting presence” in Australia.
Mr Abbott, NSW Governor David Hurley and his wife Linda, US Ambassador John Berry and Consul General Hugo Llorens flew onto the 20,000 tonne flag ship of the US Seventh Fleet today (JUL3) as she pitched and rolled in heavy seas off Sydney.
Mr Abbott, who resembled a wartime leader as he emerged onto the ship’s deck from a Seahawk chopper in a RAAF leather flying jacket, said Australia was grateful for the work that US forces did with Australian forces right around the world.
“Right now we are facing significant challenges in many parts of the world. I am very appreciative of everything our two countries do together.”
The oldest operational ship (45 years) in the US Navy the Japan based Blue Ridge will be the command ship for the sixth biennial Talisman Sabre exercise that runs for two weeks and involves more than 30,000 personnel engaged in complex war games across Northern Australia.
“Who are the goodies and the baddies?” Mr Abbott asked during an exercise briefing inside the ship’s command centre.
The key exercise scenario involves two allied task forces working together to restore democracy in two notional countries.
One is called “Ligais” and is based on Shoalwater Bay in Queensland and the other is “Monmir” around Fog Bay near Darwin.
Both have been taken over by rebel forces supported by a larger power called “Kamaria”.
Responding to questions about China the exercise commander and Seventh Fleet chief Vice Admiral Robert Thomas said none of the notional countries in the exercise should be associated with any “real world” nations.
“It is really capability and capacity that we are testing out,” he said.
“The one word take away … is interoperability.”
Deputy exercise commander Australian Major General Stuart Smith said Talisman Sabre would test the capacity of both forces to work together in the future if necessary.
“It is a fantastic training opportunity,” he said.
Mr Abbott’s ship tour took in everything from the bridge to the barber shop where a shocked sailor got to show off his standard navy issue haircut.
The 1100 sailors had their own ideas about “comfort” as they took in the Opera House and Harbour Bridge on the eve of US Independence Day.
Vice Admiral Thomas said it was great to hear that his sailors were a comforting presence.
“Hopefully they are well behaved.”
Mr Abbott and Ambassador Berry provided some sound advice to the visitors who have been well briefed on next week’s State of Origin decider.
“You must visit the Lord Nelson Hotel and try Nelson’s blood,” Mr Berry advised.
“It is a great pub,” Mr Abbott said.
Apart from the threat from “drop” bears, flying foxes, great white sharks and poisonous snakes and spiders the cashed up sailors were ready to invest their strong US dollars in Sydney’s bars and restaurants and Hunter Valley wineries.
“I have heard that Sydney is a great place,” said MCC Chief Petty Officer Ja’lon Rhinehart.
“Is it an expensive city?’
Not when your currency buys $1.32 Aussie.
For Lieutenant Lauren Cole the wineries of the Hunter Valley beckoned as she looked forward to ditching her slicked back navy hair style for loose hair, jeans and a sweater.
“I can be a girl again,” she said.
Lieutenant Chuck Banks was very interested in the local wildlife.
“I hear there are drop bears,” he said.
The US Seventh Fleet is the biggest American naval force with 51 ships, 10 submarines, 170 aircraft and 40,000 personnel. That is more fire power than the entire Australian Defence Force.