Chinese spy ship spotted circling Australia’s coast for three weeks
Scott Morrison says the revelation that a sophisticated Chinese spy ship circled Australia’s coast earlier this year highlights the “very serious situation” in the Indo-Pacific.
By Frank Chung
“I think the presence of the Chinese Navy – which we were aware of, and they were keeping a close eye on us and we were keeping a close eye on them – the importance of that is to highlight Australians that there is a very serious situation in the Indo-Pacific,” the Prime Minister told reporters in Adelaide.
“They have every right to be where they are. We knew they were there. They are able to be there under international maritime law. But don’t think for a second that we were not keeping an eye on them as they were seeking to keep an eye on us.”
Mr Morrison said it showed “Australia has to be able to stand up, and that requires great strength”.
“I have been criticised by many for the strong stance I have taken on this issue,” he said. “You need strength to take Australia through a time like this. There is never a time for weakness when it comes to leading a federal government, particularly at a time when you are dealing with these very significant security issues and the economic challenges that we have. We are seeing that at large in the South Pacific even now in the Solomon’s where we have people on the ground right now.”
The PLA Navy General Intelligence Ship Yuhengxing operating off Australia’s east coast in August 2021. The green crosshair is a standard feature of ADF imaging equipment. Picture: Australian Department of Defence
The Daily Telegraph first reported on Friday that the vessel had been spotted circling Australia’s coast for three weeks in August and September, collecting electronic intelligence as it travelled past sensitive military installations.
It was believed to be a Dongdiao-class spy ship, similar to one which monitored the Talisman Sabre military exercises between Australia and the US earlier this year. The Dongdaio-class is capable of monitoring communications and radar signals and the electromagnetic spectrum as well as employing other surveillance methods such as optical sensors. Defence sources told The Daily Telegraph the ship entered Australia’s 200km exclusive economic zone off the coast of Darwin in August before slowly heading south, hugging the coastline.
It reportedly monitored a number of crucial military training areas as it travelled as far south as Sydney, before heading across the Tasman towards New Zealand.
Defence and government officials this morning confirmed the report. “I can certainly confirm there was a Chinese military vessel operating off the east coast of Australia that transited through the Torres Strait,” Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews told Seven’s Sunrise program on Friday. “We are very closely monitoring all vessels that approach Australia and whilst this particular vessel was in our exclusive economic zone and we respect the sovereignty of that particular vessel, we will always respect that level of sovereignty, we do closely monitor any vessel as part of our routine border protection matters but of course, we are very conscious of any vessel is that are in or approaching our waters.”
The Yuhengxing spent three weeks travelling south along Australia’s coast, monitoring several sensitive military installations. The other ship is HMAS Supply. Picture: Australian Department of Defence
Under United Nations freedom of navigation rules, it is legal for foreign vessels to enter another country’s exclusive economic zone. Territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the coast.
China routinely sends spy ships to monitor military exercises near Australia and New Zealand, including in 2017 and 2019. But the appearance this time was reportedly considered unusual as there were no exercises or war games taking place.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton confirmed the sighting but said “they didn’t break any laws”. “So they stayed out of our territorial waters,” he told Nine’s Today program. “It was not the first time. As you’re aware during Operation Talisman Sabre, which was a big training exercise up off the Queensland coast, the PLA had deployed some vessels up there as well. So they will be involved in intelligence collection, signals collection. They’ll be looking to survey different attributes and have that general presence. So let us know that they’re there. And it was a prolonged period that they were very close to Australian waters off the east coast, unusually.”
Asked if the move was provocative, Mr Dutton said Australia was “just going to be realistic about the situation now in the Indo-Pacific”. “As we know, China has in its fleet up to 355 ships and submarines that goes to 460 within the next nine years or so. It’s a concerning time and that’s why Australia’s got to be strong and stand up for our values. And I think it’s right that people have a clear picture of what’s going on.”
A Defence Department spokeswoman said Australia “monitors all vessels operating in our maritime approaches”. “We are aware that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), General Intelligence Ship Yuhengxing, operated off Australia’s east coast in August 2021,” she said. “Australia supports and respects the rights of all states to exercise lawful freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and airspace, just as we expect them to respect our right to do so. Australia expects all foreign vessels entering our maritime zones to abide by international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”
It comes amid escalating tensions between Canberra and Beijing, with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week attacking the new AUKUS partnership between Australia, the UK and US. In a speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Mr Xi implied Australia’s deal for nuclear submarines would lead to the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton at a capability demonstration at Townville Field Training Area in Queensland, during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021 involving Australia, the US, Canada, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and the UK.
“We need to pursue dialogue instead of confrontation, build partnerships instead of alliances, and make concerted efforts to address the various negative factors that might threaten or undermine peace,” he said. “China will never seek hegemony, still less bully smaller countries. China supports ASEAN’s efforts to build a nuclear-weapon-free zone.”
Ground Combat Element personnel from the Japan Self-Defense Force conduct wet and dry environmental rehearsal training onboard the Royal Australian Navy ship HMAS Canberra, during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021.
Mr Dutton earlier this week refused to back down on warnings over China, amid criticism from Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong that he was talking up the prospect of war over Taiwan as an election tactic.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian also accused Mr Dutton of being “driven by selfish political games”.
“This is the propaganda of the Communist Party,” Mr Dutton said. “The Communist Party at the moment has 355 ships and submarines in her fleet, and by 2030 that goes to well over 400. So let’s be clear about where China is. They’ve got 20 points of presence in the South China Sea. They are bumping up against Japanese assets in the East China Sea. There’s $20 billion worth of economic coercion against our own country.”
Mr Dutton said Australians had to be realistic about the threat. “I think if you look at what’s happening in the Indo-Pacific at the moment and you see the ramp-up by the Communist Party of China, we need to be realistic about the threat now and throughout the next couple of decades,” he said. “And there is no sense sticking your head in the sand pretending it is not happening.”