The Australian and United States military were recently engaged in a joint war games exercise, known as Talisman Sabre, off the northeastern coast of Australia — and they noticed an unexpected and not particularly welcome observer in their vicinity.
Defense News reported that the biennial war games to improve readiness and interoperability between the two nations also included contingents from Canada, Japan and New Zealand, and involved upwards of 33,000 personnel participating in amphibious landings, paratroop drops and combined land maneuvers supported by air and naval operations.
According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the visitor was a Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy Type 815 Dongdiao-class Auxiliary General Intelligence vessel, a spy ship outfitted with advanced radars and electronic eavesdropping equipment.
Unnamed Defense officials called the presence of the spy ship “provocative” and “unfriendly” in off-the-record statements, but an official statement from the Australian Defense Department merely noted that the ship had stayed outside Australian territorial waters and “has not detracted from the exercise objectives.”
It is worth noting that though the Chinese vessel stayed out of Australian territorial waters, which extend out 12 nautical miles, it was well within Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 nautical miles, and through which it is considered legal for other nation’s military vessels to venture. In contrast, China often complains when other nations pass through its EEZ, according to American Military News.
Even though the Chinese vessel’s presence in the EEZ was legal, it nevertheless caused worry for some, as this appears to be the first time that such a ship has drawn so close to the coast during joint exercises.
“I’m personally not aware of any publicised appearance of an AGI off the Australian coast before,” said Dr. Euan Graham of the Australian Lowry Institute, according to ABC. “Coinciding with the joint exercise with the United States — clearly that sends quite an unfriendly message.”
“At the moment what we see is a double standard where China picks the areas of the Law of the Sea that it likes and refuses to implement those that it doesn’t,” Graham added.
To be sure, this isn’t the first time a Chinese Navy vessel has ventured into Australia’s EEZ, or anyone else’s for that matter. Just recently a similar Chinese spy vessel was spotted off the coast of Alaska, where it was presumably observing the recent U.S. test firing of a
However, the good news is that their recent presence in the EEZs should provide a precedent in the future regarding respect of freedom-of-navigation rules, in order to counter objections from China when other nations pass through its own EEZ.
“I think we should always be supportive when China plays by the rules, including via military activities in other countries’ EEZs or innocent passage without prior notification through territorial seas, both of which Beijing objects to when others do it in Chinese-claimed waters,” stated Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Best-case scenario, it suggests that as China becomes a global naval power, it is seeing more value in those rules and will therefore stop objecting when the US and other countries exercise the same rights,” Poling added.
China has certainly been beefing up its navy in recent years, and appear to be getting bolder as to how far out to project its new power, a concerning development which is sure to be closely monitored.
That said, provided the country respect the generally understood maritime laws and refrain from encroaching in territorial waters — and also refrain from griping too much when others do the same — there may not be much of an issue here.
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