BANYUWANGI, Indonesia — Thousands of soldiers from the United States, Indonesia, Australia and other allied forces demonstrated their armor capabilities on Sunday in combat drills on the Indonesian island of Java at a time of increased Chinese aggression in the region.
President Joe Biden’s administration has been strengthening an arc of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific to reassure allies alarmed by Beijing’s increasingly provocative actions in the disputed South China Sea, which has become a battleground for U.S-Chinese rivalries.
During the drills, Australian forces deployed five M1A1 Abrams battle tanks and the Indonesian military, deployed two Leopard-2 tanks for the two-week combat exercises in Banyuwangi, a coastal district in East Java province which began Sept. 1. It will include live-fire drills.
It was the first time Australia deployed battle tanks outside its territory since the Vietnam war.
The Garuda Shield drills have been held annually between American and Indonesian soldiers since 2009. Last year’s participants —Australia, Japan and Singapore — joined again Sunday and the list expanded to include the United Kingdom and France bringing the total number of troops taking part in the drills to 5,000.
China sees the expanded drills as a threat, accusing the U.S. of building an Indo-Pacific alliance similar to NATO to limit China’s growing military and diplomatic influence in the region.
Maj. Gen. Marcus Evans, commanding general of the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division, told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday that the introduction of armor capability in the large-scale drills would give the allied forces and defense partners a chance to test their weaponry in combat training as they finetune their military readiness.
Garuda Shield is being held in several places, including in waters around Natuna at the southern portion of the South China Sea.
Indonesia and China enjoy generally positive ties, but Jakarta has expressed concern about what it sees as Chinese encroachment on its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. The edge of the exclusive economic zone overlaps with Beijing’s unilaterally declared “nine-dash line” demarking its claims there.
Increased activities by Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats in the area have unnerved Jakarta, prompting Indonesia’s navy to conduct a large drill in July 2020 in waters around Natuna.
Evans refused to comment on China’s long-standing opposition to U.S.-led military drills in Asia.
Asked whether there are plans by the U.S. military to carry out joint naval patrols with allies like Japan and the Philippines in or near contested waters, Evans said that “it is important that we maintain a continuous engagement with our regional partners and allies from a military perspective, because, that, again, enhances our overall readiness.”
“I think it continues to show a sign of our commitment to regional partners and allies,” said Evans, who is also Senior Commander of U.S. Army Hawaii.
Combat exercises between U.S. forces and their regional allies and defense partners “remains critically important, as it has been since we began this operation in 2006,” he said in response to a question on the urgency of conducting such exercises now.
U.S. allies recognize the strategic importance and the opportunity to participate in the multinational exercises, which aim to enhance military professionalism aside from bolstering combat readiness and sharpening the ability of allied forces to operate together, Evans said.
“Australia, along with all of our regional partners and allies, continues to contribute to really three things that we focus on during operation pathways, in this case, Garuda Shield,” Evans said, “Those three things are partnerships, the refinement of our overall military readiness and interoperability.”
Meanwhile, Rear Adm. Julius Widjojono, the spokesperson for the Indonesian military, said the field training exercises aim to boost combat preparedness and hone the battle instincts of soldiers from participant nations, including overcoming enemy assaults while carrying out patrols.
Brunei, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Korea, and East Timor sent observers to the combined joint multilateral exercise.
Karmini reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, the Philippines, contributed to this report.