Japan-Australia military exercise in the South China Sea: Will it ease or exacerbate regional tensions?

The growing maritime competition between China and Japan along with the West will result in the growing militarization of the Indo-Pacific.

Saume Saptaparna Nath Jul 27, 2023
Japan-Australia military exercise in the South China Sea (Photo: Youtube)

The Australian and the Japanese military recently conducted Exercise Trident 2023 in the South China Sea.  The notion of a two-nation bloc patrolling in the waters together would send a unified message to China, which maintains a continual presence of hundreds of warships across the South China Sea to assert what it calls its sovereign maritime rights. The drill was part of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's Indo-Pacific Deployment 2023. 

Australia and Japan are both regarded as "Special Strategic Partners" in the Indo-Pacific region. This exercise is critical for continued strategic collaboration between Japan and Australia and offers substantial strategic potential for promoting Indo-Pacific multilateralism.

The exercise was carried out with the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Anzac (FFH150) and a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) in the South China Sea by helicopter destroyer JS Izumo (DDH-183) and destroyer JS Samidare (DD-106). The drill emphasized tactical operations such as anti-surface and anti-air warfare. The relationship between the JMSDF and the Royal Australian Forces has never been stronger or more important, and the JMSDF will work with the Royal Australian Navy to improve interoperability and mutual understanding in order to improve the security environment in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Growing military collaboration

The games, which took place in strategically disputed waterways over the weekend, focused on tactical operations such as anti-surface and anti-air warfare. Following a port call to Vietnam as part of an Indo-Pacific Deployment, two warships from Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), helicopter destroyer JS Izumo and destroyer JS Samidare, participated in the bilateral training maneuvers. 

Japan and Australia have committed to strengthening their collaboration in the Indo-Pacific where China is building up its military and economic clout. The two also vowed to forcefully oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China Seas, a veiled allusion to Beijing's maritime muscle-flexing in these areas. Against such a backdrop, the joint military drill will improve the partners' combined ability to maintain maritime security and readiness, as well as respond to any regional contingency, military officials from both countries were quoted as saying.

Tokyo’s bold strategies

Japan's new maritime strategy is called "The Future of the Indo-Pacific," as announced by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during last year's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The new strategy represents Japan's new concept of "global responsibility". According to Kishida, Japan wishes to offer "a guiding perspective" for a world on the edge of "division and confrontation."  Japan's 'free and open Indo-Pacific' strategy, as expressed in the QUAD grouping, has grown in significance since 2016.  Tokyo has announced a significant increase in defense spending. The US has signed new defense agreements under the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, China has increased strategic incursions into Taiwanese airspace; and Australia has promised to spend a massive AU$368 billion on nuclear submarines as enunciated in the joint statement on the AUKUS pact in March 2023. 

The Japanese military is attempting to strengthen offensive capability platforms and "counter strike" capabilities by declaring defense reform in December 2022. PM Kishida has committed to spending $324 billion over the next five years to bring Japan up to NATO expenditure standards. Japan has already upped its defense budget to $51.4 billion in Fiscal Year 2023-2024, a 26 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. Japan wants to purchase long-range missiles like Tomahawks, among other things, to improve its strike capability.

Australia’s 're-posturing' 

Australia has outlined a more assertive defense posture in which the country will prioritize new technologies, as well as maritime and long-range strike capabilities, as it prepares to combat threats faster, farther away, and alongside regional partners in response to concerns about China's rapid military buildup. Australia determined in a declassified version of its new Defence Strategic Review (DSR), its first in over 40 years, that it must "re-posture," since it is no longer as shielded by geography and other nations' limited ability to project power. Canberra vehemently opposes China's claims and activities that violate international law, notably the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and undermine international laws, standards, and norms. Australia's priority is to strengthen its involvement and collaboration with Southeast Asian and Pacific allies. in reaction to China's rising assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea and its danger to the global rules-based order.

Kishida and then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison signed a bilateral reciprocal access agreement (RAA) in January 2022 to facilitate troop deployment to each other's country for joint drills and relief operations. The RAA is Japan's second official defense treaty with another country, confirming Australia's position as the country's second most significant security partner behind the United States, Japan's only treaty ally. These military drills will strengthen the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which comprises Australia, Japan, India, and the United States. Besides, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam all claim areas of the disputed South China Sea. In the South China Sea, Beijing has constructed artificial islands and military outposts. Beijing is also embroiled in a maritime conflict with Japan in the East China Sea.

Exacerbate regional tensions

The South China Sea has become a theater of strategic rivalries, especially following the Ukraine War and the Taiwan crisis. The Indo-Pacific partners are increasingly conducting military deals to counter the Chinese maritime ambitions. Prior to this, the USS Momsen (DDG 92), an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, joined the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the South China Sea for multinational training that was completed on March 15. 

Professional engagement and collaboration with friends and partners are the bedrock of regional stability, which promotes peace and prosperity for all nations. The coastguards of the United States, Japan, and the Philippines were scheduled to conduct maritime exercises in the South China Sea, marking the first such maneuvers between the three nations at a time. All these events show that the Indo-Pacific arena is becoming increasingly militarized. Washington's three policy papers, the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Defense Buildup Program, specify increases in defense spending from one to two percent of GDP, making the United States the world's third-largest military spender. The AUKUS treaty, which includes the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, aims to significantly strengthen Australia's maritime capabilities with nuclear-powered submarines. The parties revealed the terms of the accord in March 2023, which included a second pillar on advanced technical exchange and force integration, as well as a substantial new role for AI-enabled platforms. Japan wants to be a part of their joint military exercises as the Taiwan crisis has created concerns over China’s maritime assertions in the South and East China Sea.

The Japan-Australia joint military exercise will address common maritime security goals and concerns, improve interoperability and communication, foster mutually beneficial partnerships, and promote navigational freedom in favor of a free and open Indo-Pacific. On the flip side, it is bound to exacerbate regional tensions as these military drills in the South China Sea are bound to rile Beijing. The growing maritime competition between China and Japan backed by the West will result in the growing militarization of the Indo-Pacific. 

(The author is a Research Associate, The KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs. Dhaka. Views are personal. She can be reached at  saptaparna.cbga@gmail.com)

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