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‘They’re watching us’: Australia tracking Chinese surveillance ship heading towards Queensland
The Australian government says it is “keeping a close eye” on a Chinese surveillance ship that is heading towards Queensland in an apparent attempt to monitor a joint military exercise with the United States.
Amid ongoing tensions in the relationship with China, the Australian government cited the ship’s presence as evidence Australia and its allies should also be afforded freedom of navigation in the contested South China Sea.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said on Wednesday he was “very wary” of the ship but added the government had “no objection” to it being in international waters.
“We don’t we don’t raise any issue about that, just like we don’t think any issue should be raised when [anyone] – whether it’s us or the Americans or the British or the French or anyone else – is sailing through the South China Sea,” Morrison told Sydney radio 2SM.
“Of course we watch them. We’re aware of that. And they’re watching us.”
The comments follow reports, first published by the ABC, that the Chinese auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) vessel Tianwangxing was approaching Australia’s east coast via the Torres Strait.
The reports coincided with the official opening of Talisman Sabre, the largest two-way training exercise between Australian and US military forces, held in Queensland every two years.
The Australian defence minister, Peter Dutton, said the arrival of the surveillance vessel was “a repeat of what the Chinese have done in years past”. He said both covert and overt activities were associated with previous Talisman Sabre exercises.
The Chinese vessel was due to arrive on Friday, the ABC reported, adding it was expected to remain outside Australian territorial waters but within Australia’s exclusive economic zone.
“The ship is in full Emcon (emissions control) at the moment, only broadcasting signals it absolutely has to,” an Australian military official was quoted by the ABC as saying.
Australia has also invited forces from Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United Kingdom to participate in this year’s Talisman Sabre exercises.
Their activities will include amphibious landings, ground force manoeuvre, urban operations, and air combat and maritime operations.
John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, said monitoring Talisman Sabre was “a very important activity” for China because it wanted to understand the war-fighting effectiveness of Australian, American and partner country forces.
“This is very useful for the Chinese – a huge vacuum cleaning-type activity – to suck up everything in the electromagnetic spectrum and the ether to seek out from it what it can about capabilities,” Blaxland said.
Blaxland said the surveillance would likely test the Australian defence force and partner nations’ militaries when it came to following protocols on operational security and information security.
That meant participants in the exercise would be told to “watch your Ps and Qs” including in their communications.
“This visit would be putting the wind up our ADF people and our partner nations – they’ll be on their best behaviour,” Blaxland said.
He said publicising the Chinese surveillance vessel’s journey allowed the Australian government to send “an important reciprocal message” to China about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea where China claims territory.
“It’s also a convenient message for the government to put out there in the context of Australia’s domestic debate about how adversarial we want our policy to be towards China,” he said.
“In some respects, it is convenient for those in the government who have been reinforcing the message that there is a certain adversarial dimension to our relationship with China that has not gone away and is not going away.”
Australia’s relationship with China has sunk to its lowest level in many years.
The steep diplomatic decline has been driven by several factors, including the decision to ban Chinese company Huawei from involvement in Australia’s 5G network, new laws against foreign interference, and the Morrison government’s criticism of Beijing over human rights.
China has also rolled out a series of action against Australian export sectors since early 2020, prompting Australia to challenge China’s tariffs on barley and wine through the World Trade Organization.
The Biden administration has vowed to work with Australia to push back against China’s “unfair” trade practices, as Guardian Australia reported on Wednesday.
The European Union is also set to join as a third party if the dispute between Australia and China over wine tariffs moves to the next stage at the WTO. Comment was sought from the Chinese embassy in Canberra.