Huge Military Exercise Kicks Off in Australia Amid Tensions with China

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Australian Army soldiers aboard a light armored vehicle Talisman Sabre
Australian Army soldiers aboard a light armored vehicle-25, come off a landing craft onto Langham Beach, Queensland, Australia, during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019. (U.S. Army/Sgt. 1st Class Whitney C. Houston)

A massive, multinational exercise led by Australian and U.S. forces kicked off Wednesday.

On its surface, Talisman Sabre is a chance for more than 17,000 troops from the Australian and U.S. militaries, as well as forces from the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea, to practice operating together. However, the exercise also comes at a challenging time in U.S.-China relations.

"Talisman Sabre is a major undertaking for all participants and demonstrates our capacity to achieve large-scale operational outcomes, while also dealing with a global pandemic," Maj. Gen. Jake Ellwood, commander of Australia's Deployable Joint Force Headquarters, said in a statement published by Australia's Department of Defence.

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Experts describe the biennial exercise as aiming to send a strong message to China about U.S. strength in the region and its close bonds with allies in the area.

This year, Talisman Sabre begins just days after Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. would continue to follow a Trump-era rejection of nearly all of China's significant maritime claims in the South China Sea and warned its leaders that any attack on the Philippines would provoke a U.S. response under a mutual defense treaty.

On July 13, just two days after Blinken's announcement, the destroyer Benfold conducted a freedom of navigation transit near the Paracel Islands -- territory China claims.

The Chinese military said it "drove away" the warship, according to a Reuters report. The Navy denied that, calling the claim "the latest in a long string of [People's Republic of China] actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims" in a statement from Indo-Pacific Command.

Amid that backdrop, Talisman Sabre will conduct amphibious landings, ground force maneuvers, urban operations, and air combat and maritime operations.

The last time the exercise was held, U.S. Marines, Australian soldiers, and Japan's then-brand-new amphibious force carried out a mock beach raid, giving a glimpse into how the three countries could unite to defend contested islands in the Pacific.

The Australian announcement also notes that "a majority of these international forces will participate exclusively offshore, including about 5,000 who will participate as part of a US Navy Expeditionary Strike Group."

In addition to naval forces, the exercise will involve 40 aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force.

Talisman Sabre will run until mid-August, but activities will peak from July 18-31, according to the Australian Department of Defence.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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