Five Australian warships have joined US and Japanese forces in a show of strength as China test-fired live weapons nearby.
The force assembled in the Philippine Sea in a show of solidarity as territorial tensions soared after Washington last week declared illegal Beijing's unilateral claim to the virtual entirety of the South and East China seas.
The Royal Australian Navy's helicopter-carrying troopship HMAS Canberra leads the air warfare destroyer HMAS Hobart, the frigates HMAS Stuart and HMAS Arunta, and the support ship HMAS Sirius.
The RAN ships joined a task force centred on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, a guided-missile cruiser and destroyer, and a Japanese destroyer.
"The opportunity to work alongside the US and Japanese is invaluable," Commodore Michael Harris, commander, Australian Joint Task Group, said in a media release. "Maintaining security and safety at sea requires navies to be able to co-operate seamlessly."
That interoperability was a clear signal to Southeast Asian nations and Beijing that the allied forces were ready and able to join forces if the need arose effectively.
Beijing's Communist Party leadership was not pleased.
"The PLA [People's Liberation Army] could be forced to increase its presence with routine deployments and exercises to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity," the state-controlled Global Times news service stated earlier this week.
"These incidents, taking place thousands of miles away from the US and on China's doorstep, have again proven that the US is the real pusher of militarisation in the South China Sea."
Washington, however, is adopting an equally belligerent tone.
"Look, American aircraft carriers have been in the South China Sea in the Indo-Pacific since World War II, and we'll continue to be there, and we're not going to be stopped by anybody," US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday.
The RAN's contribution to the joint task force represents a significant portion of the nation's fleet. Some of the navy's newest and most capable vessels are there in a show of support of Washington's hardening stance towards Beijing.
It's also a signal to Southeast Asian nations that the allies stand to preserve the international law of the sea (UNCLOS).
"We're going to sail, fly and operate where international law allows and we do that, again, to assert international law and rights to back up the sovereignty of our friends and partners and to reassure them that we will be there to defend those things," Esper said.
In ongoing live-fire drills by PLA in the South China Sea some 3000 live missiles have reportedly been fired at moving targets on the sea and in the air by combat aircraft including JH-7 bombers and J-11B interceptors.
The last time such a large-scale operation was conducted from the contested Woody Island was in 2016 after an international tribunal at The Hague rejected China's "nine-dash-line" territorial claim.
Beijing refuses to recognise the ruling.
"The PLA recently conducted maritime target attack drills in the South China Sea and deployed warplanes in an island in the region at a time when the US aggressively sent warplanes for close-up reconnaissance and warships including aircraft carriers," the Global Times states.
"If US military provocations in the South China Sea persist, China could be left with no choice but to conduct more drills and deploy more warships and warplanes in the South China Sea," it cites Beijing's Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang as saying.
The joint Australian, US and Japanese force will at the weekend move on to Hawaii for larger-scale war games, RIMPAC, involving many Pacific and Southeast Asian nations.
The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, which had been operating with the USS Reagan earlier this month, has moved into the Indian Ocean where it is conducting similar interoperability exercises with the Indian navy.
The escalating war of words between Beijing and much of the Western world shows no sign of abating. Defence Secretary Ren told media it was a legitimate right of sovereign countries to deploy facilities and conduct training on their own territories. "The Chinese side's actions are lawful, reasonable and fair," he said.
But only Beijing believes this to be the case. Which is why the Australian navy is joining "freedom of navigation" exercises in the disputed waterways.
"China is forced to take countermeasures to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity," the Global Times declared, announcing the deployment of combat jets to Woody Island. This fortified airfield is in the disputed Paracel island chain Beijing seized from Saigon during a short war in the 1970s.
The use of advanced J-11B combat jets – which are a copy of the Russian Su-27 Flanker L – has revived fears that Beijing's next move may be to declare an "air defence identification zone" (ADIZ) over large portions of the South China Sea.
This would mean all aircraft, military and civilian, flying through the airspace would be subject to Beijing's permission.
The Global Times obliquely threatened Asean nations (which includes Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines), saying Beijing did not want to raise relations with its neighbours.
"China should also not rush into announcing an ADIZ in the South China Sea, because it could hurt Asean members more than the US, consequently damaging ties between China and Asean members," the report said.
Lines in the water
Beijing is increasingly confident in its warfighting ability.
"As the strategic mutual trust between China and the US has almost evaporated and the US has strengthened its military presence in China's close neighbourhood, the risk of accidental military frictions between China and the US has increased," the Communist Party-appointed editor of the Global Times wrote in a weekend editorial.
"When it comes to our ability to mobilise people and resources to safeguard China's core interests, when it comes to the will to fight to the end, Washington can hardly compare with Beijing, and Washington knows this better than we do."
It's in the face of such an attitude that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced a $575 billion Defence Strategic Update, highlighting investment in long-range precision-guide missiles, autonomous air, sea and land craft, new sensor networks and homemade ammunition facilities.
Meanwhile, Beijing's unilateral actions continue to drive Indian Pacific nations together.
The US, Japan, India and Australia have been holding informal talks known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue since 2007.
India has been hesitant to formally form an Asian "Nato alliance". But recent incursions by China sweeping from Japanese islands through to India's mountainous Himalayan highlands has produced a shift in this attitude.
"If Australia is invited to join the [upcoming] Malabar exercises, it indeed would provide renewed optimism for military operationalisation of the Quad," Sameer Lalwani, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Stimson Centre, told the Asian Review.