SYDNEY - Australia has begun military exercises with China not far from the disputed artificial islands of the South China Sea. Canberra insists it is an invaluable chance to work alongside a regional neighbor, while analysts worry it could be used for propaganda purposes.
The “live fire” exercises were planned long ago but come at a time of rising diplomatic tensions in the South China Sea, where the Chinese have tried to further their territorial claims by building new islands.
Beginning Monday, the Royal Australian Navy will engage in war games alongside Chinese forces, not far from the disputed waters.
Last week, the U.S. sent a warship through the area to assert what it called “freedom of navigation”.
Australian Defense Chief Air Chief Marshall Mark Binskin is playing down diplomatic concerns over the military exercises.
“It's a chance to work with regional navies and show transparency and capability in what we do. It's what we do with a lot of regional navies. It is part of the relationship we have with a lot of the regional navies in the development between the defense forces, and so we shouldn't make it more than what it actually is,” said Binskin.
But Euan Graham from the Lowy Institute, an independent Sydney-based think-tank, believes it is bad timing.
He fears the drills could be exploited by China for propaganda purposes.
“Australia is proud of its close relationship with the Chinese Navy - there aren't many that are given the ability to operate this closely. The question has to be the current timing and whether this is sending a mixed signal with America just having launched its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea,” said Graham.
Australia is believed to be the only Western military to conduct "live fire" exercises alongside the Chinese. The war games began back in 2010.
Australia’s relationship with its powerful partners has presented diplomatic challenges, where it must further its most important trading relationship with China, while maintaining historic security ties with the United States.