US, allies to stage military exercise in South China Sea

Japan, Australia, and the Philippines have joined with Washington for a joint military drill in waters claimed by Beijing

The US and three of its allies have announced a joint military exercise in disputed waters of the South China Sea, potentially ratcheting up tensions with Beijing as they seek to demonstrate their commitment to “safeguarding the international order.”

The US-led group will hold a “maritime cooperation activity,” its first in a series of joint drills, on Sunday, according to a issued by defense chiefs of the four countries. The exercise will include naval and air forces and will be staged in waters claimed by both China and the Philippines.

“Every country should be free to conduct lawful air and maritime operations,” US defense chief Lloyd Austin said in the statement. “These activities with our allies Australia, Japan, and the Philippines underscore our shared commitment to ensuring that all countries are free to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. Our operations together support peace and stability at the heart of our shared vision for a free and open region.”

The announcement comes after the US and Chinese militaries in Hawaii earlier this week – their first such meeting since 2021 – to discuss safety measures to avoid dangerous incidents when their forces are operating in close proximity. The Chinese Defense Ministry that it “firmly opposes any actions that endanger its sovereignty under the guise of freedom and navigation and overflight.”

Sunday’s joint drill in the South China Sea is apparently just such an exercise, as its stated purpose is to “uphold the right to freedom of navigation and overflight.” Austin and the other three defense chiefs said: “We stand with all nations in safeguarding the international order based on the rule of law that is the foundation for a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific region.” They reaffirmed that their countries view a 2016 international arbitration ruling against China as a “final and legally binding decision on the parties to the dispute.”

That ruling, issued by a tribunal in The Hague, found that China’s so-called “nine-dash line” – encompassing about 90% of the South China Sea – was invalid under international law. Chinese officials refused to accept the panel’s decision and claimed that it had no jurisdiction over the issue. Beijing has cautioned against joint US military drills that might  in its territorial dispute and underme its security interests.