Australian Amphib HMAS Canberra in the Philippines for Drills Amidst South China Sea Tensions

August 21, 2023 4:50 PM
Philippine Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Noel Gallaza and Commander Indo-Pacific Endeavour Air Commodore Tony McCormack speak to media on board HMAS Canberra, prior to her departure for Exercise Alon as part of Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2023. Royal Australian Defence Force Photo

HMAS Canberra (L02) launched several MV-22B Ospreys in an air assault exercise off Palawan this week, commencing the first phase of the first-ever bilateral amphibious drill between the Philippines and Australia.

The Australian big-deck amphibious warship departed Darwin last week for the Philippines in the aftermath of the latest incident between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.

The drills, called Exercise Alon 2023, will see Australian Defense Forces (ADF) train with their Filipino counterparts across the Philippine archipelago. U.S. Marine Corps aviation from Marine Rotational Force – Darwin also supports Alon, with an unspecified amount of MV-22B Ospreys seen embarked onboard Canberra. Philippine Marines in Palawan trained on Ospreys during last month’s Marine Aviation Support Activity 2023.

The drills will host 1,200 Australian, 700 Philippine and 150 American troops. Activities highlighted by the Australian Department of Defence include an aerial assault on Palawan via Marine Corps Ospreys, amphibious drills off Zambales and a live-fire exercise at Colonel Ernesto Rabina Air Base in Luzon. Naval and air activities are also occurring in the Sulu Sea, with a vast swath of the area being designated for exercises.

Before Alon officially began, Australian and U.S. troops trained Philippine Marines in Helicopter Underwater Escape Training and MV-22B familiarization. Around 100 Philippine troops were onboard Canberra as it departed Darwin.

“It’s really a great opportunity for all of us to have a common goal, which is to maintain prosperity, to maintain security, and that is by means of bilateral engagements,” Philippine Marine Corps Lt. Col. Kristine Salon, commander of the Amphibious Landing Force of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said in a statement.

The Australian-Philippine defense relationship is one of the closest that Manila has outside of its cooperation with the U.S. Australia, like the U.S., shares a Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines. This allows the ADF to train in more complex and larger exercises on Philippine soil. Australian support on the ground has also been crucial to the Philippines beyond training, as seen during the 2017 Battle of Marawi where a Royal Australian Air Force P-3C Orion provided intelligence to Philippine forces.

MRF-D Ospreys land on the HMAS Adelaide. US Marine Corps Photo

Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles will observe the exercises.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will be in Manila on Sept. 8, marking the first visit of an Australian leader to the Philippines in two decades. Key talking points include defense cooperation and maritime security. As Australia continues to ramp up its regional security engagement as seen with the QUAD and AUKUS, defense cooperation with and assistance to the Philippines is set to increase.

Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore Tony McCormack reflected this sentiment and highlighted this year’s upgrade of the Australian-Philippine relationship to a strategic partnership.

“We have a shared interest in a peaceful, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, with ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] at its center,” McCormack said.

The flagship of the Royal Australian Navy comes to the region in the wake of an incident between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea. This incident saw China Coast Guard and Maritime Militia vessels harass a Philippine resupply mission on its way to BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal. While the incident occurred two weeks ago, tensions from the encounter are still ongoing as the Philippines doubles down on its response. The Philippines plans to proceed with another resupply mission and has told “all relevant parties” to “respect the Philippines’ sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its maritime zones.”

Canberra is set to train with U.S. and Japanese vessels in the South China Sea later this week.

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa is a freelance defense journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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