Japan joins US-Aussie military drills amid regional tensions

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (C) exits a Seahawk helicopter as he arrives aboard the U.S. Navy's USS Blue Ridge as it enters Sydney Harbour, Australia, July 3, 2015. (Reuters / Tim Hunter)
The US and Australia are marking the start of their joint biennial military exercises on Sunday, with Japan joining in for the first time. The drills are being held amid growing tensions over the disputed South China Sea region.

The ‘Talisman Saber’ exercises will last two weeks, with 30,000 US and Australian troops taking part

There will also be 40 Japanese officers and soldiers taking part, as well as 500 troops from New Zealand. The exercises are taking place in the Northern Territory and Queensland.

Planned operations are being held in the sea, in the air and on land.

It is a very, very important alliance,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, 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.”

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Talisman Saber involves biennial joint drills by the Australian Defense Force and the United States Military in at least six locations in northern and central Australia. This is the sixth time such exercises have been held since 2005.

Australia has been working on expanding ties with Japan in the last few years. Last summer, Abbott described Japanese PM Shinzo Abe as “a very, very close friend” during his state visit to Canberra.

The military exercises are happening amid growing tensions in the Pacific region, with China wanting to increase its military capability.

On Tuesday, Beijing announced a new defense strategy designed to improve its naval capability. The new approach will now shift from “territorial air defense” to both “defense and offense.” China also slammed its neighbors for their “provocative actions” on its “reefs and islands.”

READ MORE: Beijing rejects US criticism over construction in South China Sea

Making relations more strained is the growing dispute with Beijing over a group of small islands. While China claims most of the South China Sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also lay claim to parts of the resource-rich area..

A concern the three nations participating in the drills share is that China might impose air and sea restrictions in the Spratlys archipelago, should it complete construction of its seven artificial islands there.

Meanwhile, Beijing maintains that it has every right to install an Air Defence Identification Zone if needed.

When asked at a regular news briefing if Beijing was concerned the Talisman Saber exercises appeared to be aimed at China, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she was “not worried.”

We believe the relevant countries should all play a proactive and constructive role to strengthen mutual trust and cooperation between countries in the region,” Reuters quoted her as saying.

However, some analysts believe that the US and its allies are looking at China. “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,” a China specialist at the University of Sydney, John Lee, told AFP.