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Australia Sends Largest Warship to Military Drills with Philippines and US

FILE - The HMAS Canberra's crew muster on the upper decks as the ship sails into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on June 28, 2022.
FILE - The HMAS Canberra's crew muster on the upper decks as the ship sails into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on June 28, 2022.

Australia's biggest warship heads to the Philippines Monday where tensions with Beijing have escalated in recent days over disputed waters in the South China Sea. HMAS Canberra will take part in joint military exercises with U.S. forces and the Philippines.

The South China Sea is one of the world's most important waterways. It links the Indian Ocean to the Pacific and is a critical shipping channel with rich fishing grounds. It could also harbor valuable deposits of natural resources.

Neighboring countries have contested the region for years. China has laid claim to large swathes, which has angered competing claimants, including Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Flashpoints - big and small - are common.

Most recently, authorities in the Philippines accused the Chinese of using a water cannon against its vessels carrying supplies for Filipino soldiers based on one of the disputed Spratly Islands. The Philippine Coast Guard said China's actions were "excessive and unlawful". China demanded the removal of the beached ship the soldiers are living on.

The United States stays neutral in the territorial disputes but has deployed military aircraft and ships near disputed islands in what it calls "freedom of navigation" operations in the South China Sea.

Monday, Australia sends its largest warship - HMAS Canberra - to the Philippines take part in joint exercises with U.S. and Filipino forces.

Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, Australia's Chief of Navy, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Monday that Canberra wants to maintain peace in the region.

"The South China Sea has been an area of tension now for many, many years," he said. "We have continued to conduct our operations and activities and exercises with allies and partners safely and securely despite those tensions. So, I'm not particularly concerned about this deployment about this deployment any more so than any of the other deployments that we do."

Australia's defense and security partnership with the Philippines dates back more than 100 years.

Earlier this year, officials said that the Philippines and Australia had discussed joint patrols in the South China Sea.

In February, China's coast guard directed a military-grade laser at the crew of a Philippine coast guard vessel around Second Thomas Shoal.

Beijing insisted its actions were legal.

China's ambitions in the South China Sea, and other geopolitical and trade disputes, have fractured Australia's relationship with Beijing in recent years.

A left-leaning government in Canberra elected in May 2022 has sought to stabilize bilateral ties but has insisted that there would inevitably be areas of disagreement and competition.