Japan-Australia military exercise in South China Sea: Consolidating defence cooperation?

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The Australian and Japanese military 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 its 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 area. This exercise is critical for continued strategic collaboration between Japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific area, and it 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 emphasised 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 to improve the Indo-Pacific region’s security environment. 

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 manoeuvres. 

Australia, Japan’s ally, is a ‘Special Strategic Partner’ in the Indo-Pacific area, sharing not just universal principles but also strategic interests in security.

Japan and Australia have committed to strengthening their collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region, where China is strengthening 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 aggression in those areas. Against such a backdrop, the joint military drill will improve the partners’ combined ability to maintain maritime security and readiness and respond to any regional contingency. 

Tokyo’s bold Indo-Pacific strategies

Japan’s new FOIP strategy is called ‘The Future of the Indo-Pacific,’ as promised by Kishida during last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. In a word, the new strategy represents Japan’s concept of global responsibility. 

According to Kishida, Japan wishes to offer ‘a guiding perspective’ for a world on the edge of ‘division and confrontation.’  

As expressed in QUAD, Japan’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy has grown in significance since 2016. Japan has announced a significant increase in defence spending, the US has signed new defence 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 an eye-watering AU$368 billion on nuclear submarines 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 defence reform in December 2022. 

President Fumio 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 defence budget to $51.4 billion in Fiscal Year 2023-2024, a 26 per cent 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 Growing Commitment to Maritime Security 

Australia has outlined a more assertive defence posture in which the country will prioritise new technologies and 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. 

Destabilising and forceful unilateral measures in the East China Sea may increase relations. They vehemently oppose 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 prioritises strengthening 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. 

A move to strengthen defence cooperation? 

 Prime Minister Fumio 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 defence 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. 

Beijing has constructed artificial islands and military outposts in the South China Sea. Beijing is also embroiled in a maritime conflict with Japan in the East China Sea.

The South China Sea has become a theatre of strategic rivalries, especially following the Ukraine War and Taiwan Crisis. The Indo-Pacific partners are jointly conducting military deals to counter the Chinese maritime ambitions called the ‘string of pearls. 

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 manoeuvres between the three nations when concern over China’s operations in the region is rising. All of these events show that the Indo-Pacific area is becoming increasingly militarised. 

The three policy papers, the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Defense Buildup Program, specify increases in defence spending from one to two per cent of GDP, making the United States the world’s third-largest defence 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 also wants to be a part of their joint military exercises as the Taiwan crisis has created concerns over Japan’s territorial sovereignty against China’s maritime mussels in the South and East China Sea. 

Hence, Japan-Australia’s joint military exercise will address common maritime security goals and concerns, improve interoperability and communication, foster mutually beneficial partnerships, and promote navigational freedom in favour of a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

On the flip side, it will invoke more regional tensions as China will be triggered by these military drills in the South China Sea. The neck-to-neck maritime competition between China and Japan, along with the West, will result in growing militarisation in the Indo-Pacific. 

– Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Financial Express [Link]