Australian and Indonesian forces are using main battle tanks in US-led combat exercises amid Chinese concerns

BANYUWANGI, Indonesia (AP) — Thousands of soldiers from the United States, Indonesia, Australia and other allied forces demonstrated their armament skills in combat exercises on the Indonesian island of Java on Sunday at a time of increasing Chinese aggression in the region.

President Joe Biden’s administration has strengthened a number of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific to reassure allies alarmed by Beijing’s increasingly provocative actions in the disputed South China Seawhich has become the battleground of American-Chinese rivalries.

During the exercises, Australian forces deployed five M1A1 Abrams main 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 on September 1. There will be live fire drills.

It was the first time since the Vietnam War that Australia deployed main battle tanks outside its territory.

The Garuda protection exercises between American and Indonesian soldiers have taken place annually since 2009. Last year’s participants – Australia, Japan and Singapore – were added again on Sunday and the list was expanded to include the United Kingdom and France, bringing the total number of troops taking part in the drill to 5,000.

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China sees the expansion of the exercises as a threat and accuses the USA of building an Indo-Pacific alliance similar to NATO to limit them 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 on Saturday that introducing tank capabilities in the large-scale exercises would give allied forces and defense partners a chance to test their weapons in combat training while honing their military readiness.

Garuda Shield is being held in several locations, including in the waters around Natuna in the southern part of the South China Sea.

Indonesia and China generally have good relations, but Jakarta has expressed concern over what it sees as Chinese encroachment into 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” that demarcates its claims there.

The increasing activity of Chinese coast guard ships and fishing boats in the area has unsettled Jakarta and prompted the Indonesian Navy to conduct a major exercise in the waters around Natuna in July 2020.

Evans declined to comment on China’s longstanding opposition to U.S.-led military exercises in Asia.

Asked whether there were US military plans to conduct joint naval patrols with allies such as Japan and the Philippines in or near disputed waters, Evans said: “It is important that we maintain ongoing dialogue with our regional partners and allies of the military.” perspective, because that in turn increases our overall readiness.”

“I think it continues to be a sign of our commitment to regional partners and allies,” said Evans, who is also the commander in chief of the U.S. Army in Hawaii.

Combat exercises between U.S. forces and their regional allies and defense partners “remain critical, as they have been since this operation began in 2006,” he said in response to a question about the urgency of conducting such exercises now.

U.S. allies recognize the strategic importance and opportunity to participate in the multinational exercises, which, in addition to strengthening combat readiness and sharpening the ability of allied forces to work together, are also aimed at improving military professionalism, Evans said.

“Australia, along with all of our regional partners and allies, continues to contribute to really three things that we are focused on throughout the path of operations, in this case Garuda Shield,” Evans said. “These three things are partnerships, refining our overall military readiness and interoperability.”

Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Julius Widjojono, spokesman for the Indonesian military, said the field exercises are aimed at increasing combat readiness and sharpening the combat instincts of soldiers from participating nations, including overcoming enemy attacks while conducting patrols.

Brunei, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, South Korea and East Timor sent observers to the joint multilateral exercise.

Karmini reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. Associate Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines contributed to this report.

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