Talisman Sabre 2021 Kicks Off Under Watchful Eye of China’s ‘Uranus’ Spy Ship

July 15, 2021James R. Webb
uranus watchful

US Marine Corps Cpl. Jeff Bobowick, a field artillery radar operator with 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, directs a tactical vehicle during Talisman Sabre 2021 at Shoalwater Bay Training Area, Queensland, Australia, July 14, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ujian Gosun, courtesy of DVIDS.

Talisman Sabre, the largest joint training exercise between the Australian and US militaries, begins today. According to Australian Defense Magazine, more than 17,000 US and Australian personnel are initiating two weeks of joint exercises geared toward a high-intensity conventional fight, all under the watchful eye of China’s “Uranus” spy ship.

“Exercise Talisman Sabre reflects the strength of the Australia-US Alliance and the close and enduring nature of our military-to-military relationship,” Maj. Gen. Jake Ellwood, commander of the Australian Defense Force’s Deployable Joint Force Headquarters, told the Australian news site, Bundaberg Now.

“It is a powerful demonstration of the breadth and depth of the Alliance, which includes strong people-to-people links, world-leading capability innovation, and highly interoperable forces,” Ellwood said.

uranus watchful
The Chinese ship Tianwangxing, which translates as “Uranus,” is en route to monitor the Talisman Sabre 2021 exercise in Australia. Photo courtesy of the Australian Department of Defence.

Talisman Sabre occurs every other odd year, but this year’s training event comes at a time of unprecedented friction between Beijing and Canberra.

According to Reuters, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused China of “economic coercion” during a June meeting of the G7 in the United Kingdom. China imposed tariffs on Australian goods following Canberra’s request that an independent investigation be opened into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. China’s retaliatory tariffs, set at 80%, hit Australian exports such as beef, wine, and coal.

“Where there are no consequences for coercive behaviour, there is little incentive for restraint,” Morrison said in a speech, Reuters reported.

Additionally, on July 11, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken effectively doubled down on the Trump-era policy of rejecting China’s “unlawful maritime claims” to the South China Sea.

uranus watchful
US Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey aircraft with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 363, based out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, prepare to conduct aerial refueling with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152 in support of Exercise Talisman Sabre 21, Australia, July 13, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Bryant Rodriguez, courtesy of DVIDS.

Blinken added that the US stands with Southeast Asian countries facing Chinese “coercion.” In response, Beijing accused the US of “irresponsibility.”  Two days later, the People’s Liberation Army Navy claimed that it “drove away” a US warship from international waters in the South China Sea.

“It is extremely irresponsible of the U.S. to deliberately provoke controversy over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea, sow discord among China and ASEAN countries,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, according to Reuters.

Disputes regarding territorial integrity in the South China Sea have persisted for decades. Currently, the area that China claims is also in the “exclusive economic zone” of five smaller Asian nations. Additionally, Beijing lays a historical claim to the Senkaku Islands dating conveniently to the discovery of large deposits of natural gas and oil in the island chain in the 1970s. At the same time, Japan has historically administered the Senkakus.

uranus watchful
US Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Minh Vo, a battery gunnery sergeant with Golf Battery, Battalion Landing Team 3/5, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), conducts a rehearsal of concept drill during Talisman Saber 2021 at Camp Growl, Shoalwater Bay Training Area, Queensland, Australia, July 14, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Joseph E. DeMarcus, courtesy of DVIDS.

As Talisman Sabre’s exercise begins amid friction over territorial claims and accusations of “economic coercion,” the training itself is geared toward fighting a near-peer adversary in the Pacific theater. According to the Department of Defense, this year’s exercise will be focused on amphibious assaults and simulate a “mid-to-high intensity conflict” between joint task forces, leaving little room for speculation about who that potential adversary could be. As a result, China will be watching from the sea.

According to the Daily Mail, China’s navy is sending the spy ship Tianwangxing, which translates as “Uranus,” to monitor the Talisman Sabre drills. Scheduled to arrive off the coast of Australia on Friday, the Tianwangxing is equipped with a suite of electronic-surveillance and signals-intelligence equipment. However, Australian authorities are prepared for its arrival, and the exercise will continue unabated. 

“We fully expected a ship of this class to arrive in our region during the exercise and have planned for its presence, as we do for every iteration,” Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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James R. Webb
James R. Webb

James Webb served as a US Marine infantryman from 2005 to 2010, completing a combat tour in Iraq. He’s worked as a freelance writer and photojournalist covering US troops in Afghanistan, and Webb spent more than two years in the US Senate as a military legislative assistant and as the personal representative of a member on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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