Today, Australian Defence Force personnel are taking part in the Balikatan war games, an annual joint training exercise undertaken by the military forces of the United States and the Philippines. The 10 day exercise, which is set to double in size this year, is being held within the contested waters of the South China Sea.
It's not the first time Australia has taken part in these war games. But the nation's participation calls into question its official policy of not taking sides in South China Sea disputes, especially at a time when international focus is drawn towards China's growing activities in the region.
China is conducting land reclamation operations in the South China Sea, constructing a series of seven reported artificial islands upon partly-submerged reefs in the Spratlys archipelago, an area thought to be rich in oil and gas deposits.
Last Thursday, satellite images were released showing that a military capable airstrip is being built on one of the islands, while the construction of another airstrip may be underway elsewhere in the region.
At a press conference on April 9, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stated the islands would be used for military defence, as well as providing services that would benefit other countries in the typhoon prone area.
This "great wall of sand" is situated within China's nine-dash line: a broken demarcation line that encompasses the area the nation asserts sovereignty over, which is the majority of the South China Sea. A map outlining the nine-dash line, first published in 1947, was presented to the United Nations in 2009. Chinese construction has been going on in the area at a minimal pace since the late 1980s, but it's picked up dramatically over the last months.
China states its claims have an historical basis and rejects the claims that the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have over certain areas in the region.
But it's not just China building up its military presence in the Asia-Pacific.
Last Monday, 1,150 US marines began arriving in Darwin, as part of the annual deployment of the Marine Rotational Force - Darwin. This six-month stationing of troops at the Australian Defence Force's Robertson Barracks began in 2012. And by 2016-17, the permanent rotation will reach its full contingent of 2,500 marines.
Dr Alan Bloomfield, post-doctoral research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the University of NSW, explained that Darwin is a perfect strategic spot for two reasons. Firstly, Darwin lies outside of the maximum range of the Dong Feng 21D, a ballistic missile developed by the Chinese military that can attack US aircraft carriers.
The second reason is Darwin's proximity the Malacca and Lombok Straits. "If there was a shooting war between the Americans and the Chinese, the Americans would want to close these off and strangle China with a blockade," Bloomfield said. "The Malaccas are particularly important because China gets a significant proportion of its petroleum and gas from the Middle East, so it's got to go through the Malacca Straits."
The US also has plans to set up a drone base on the Cocos Islands, which would provide further access to these straits and the Indian Ocean.
The Darwin deployment is one of four rotational Marine Air-Ground Task Forces the US is stationing around the Western Pacific, with bases in Okinawa, Guam and Hawaii. These deployments are part of the US pivot to Asia: a strategic turn adopted by the Obama administration towards the end of 2011, to restore balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, where a rising China was seen to be playing increasingly hardline diplomacy in 2009 and 10.
On March 31, Admiral Harry Harris Jr, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said in a speech he gave to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), that the US is set to have 60 percent of their navy based in the Pacific by 2020, as part of this rebalance.
As China is Australia's largest trading partner and the US its closest ally, many are asking what implications this military build up will have on the nation.
But according to Dr Andrew Davies, senior analyst and director of research at ASPI, there's no reason for Australia to have to make a choice between the two powers, due to the nation's economic advantage in the region.
"When all is said and done China wants to buy commodities. We're a low price, highly reliable source of commodities. If the Chinese want to go somewhere else, they'd have to pay more to another supplier," he said.
Of Australia's involvement in the Balikatan war games, Davies thinks a clear message is being sent to China. "The message is one they already know and that's Australia is certainly in the American camp," he said.
But Euan Graham, director of the International Security program at the Lowy Institute, doesn't think that Australian involvement in the South China Sea exercises is an indication it's defending the regional claims of the Philippines. Australia, with its diverse set of diplomatic ties, also recently undertook a small scale exercise with China, which took place in the Northern Territory in conjunction with the US.
One thing it could indicate however, is an increase in Australia's role in America's Pacific plan. "The United States is likely to ask more of its allies, because it continues to be distracted in the Middle East," Graham said, referring to US Defence Secretary Ash Carter's recent proposal that Japan begins air patrols of the South China Sea. "So we might begin to see more of that kind of request coming from Washington. Canberra is a long standing dependable ally. I think it may be asked to do more in the future."
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