More than 33,000 U.S. and Australian troops took part in Talisman Sabre, a biennial exercise that involved 21 ships including the aircraft carrier George Washington and the landing helicopter dock Bonhomme Richard's expeditionary strike group.

Held from July 4-19, the exercise occurred as U.S. allies confront an increasingly aggressive China, which is building man-made islands in the South China Sea as part of its effort to push its territorial claims into waters that countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam believe belong to them.

China's reported belligerence has forced Japan to review its role in the world. Japan's constitution drafted after World War II renounces war. In this year's Talisman Sabre exercise, sailors with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force participated as embedded units within the U.S. military.

Here is what you need to need to know about the exercise.

Boots on the ground

The Army sent more than 1,200 soldiers to this year's exercise. They came from I Corps Headquarters, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division and a battalion from the 4th BCT, 25th Infantry Division, parachuted out of U.S. and Australian C-17s as part of an air assault with the Australian Army's 7th Brigade.

From the sea

The Bonhomme Richard with the amphibious transport docks Green Bay and Ashland and the destroyer Preble and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit conducted more than 20 amphibious landings using landing craft and more than 40 MV-22 Osprey flights from the Bonhomme Richard. Meanwhile, F/A-18Fs from Carrier Air Wing 5 embarked on the George Washington conducted in-flight refueling from a Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A tanker.

In the air

The Air Force sent about 400 airmen to the exercise along with five C-17s and seven KC-10s from the following bases: Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Travis Air Force Base, California; and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. The airmen participating came from those bases and elsewhere.

Mixed messages

Whenever the U.S. conducts exercises or moves ships into the Pacific, it is meant to send two messages to the Chinese: "1. Hey, we're here; and 2. back off — behave yourself, etc.," said Dean Cheng, a senior researcher with the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. The problem is the Chinese take away a completely different message: "You are trying to intimidate me, I guess I'm going to have to kill these things," he said.

Talisman Sabre is unlikely to change China's behavior in the South China Sea because the Chinese believe that territory belongs to them, he said. "Is this going to deter them? No," he said. "Is it going to piss them off? Yes. Is there anything we can do about it? No. Because here is the main problem: It's not like we can stop exercising with our allies."

Japan's role

The Japanese presence in Talisman Sabre — although reportedly minimal — may get China's attention, Cheng said. "If the Chinese care about Talisman Sabre, it's because it's a sign that the Japanese are breaking out from their post-World War II limitations," he said. "They put it in with: 'Hey, the Japanese are saying they are going to do patrols in the South China Sea; hey, the Japanese are saying they are going to expand their defense budget more; hey, the Japanese have passed laws that say they are allowed to intervene abroad and do collective defense.'"

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