Chinese spy ship spotted near war games, Australia says

Vessel stayed outside territorial waters but was inside exclusive economic zone in move Australian defence officials described as ‘provocative’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 10:50pm

The Chinese navy’s newest and most advanced spy ship has been seen near waters where a joint military exercise between Australian and US forces is under way, Australia’s defence department said on Saturday.

China’s defence ministry didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry from the South China Morning Post. Australian defence officials told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the move was “provocative” and sent an unfriendly message.

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The People’s Liberation Army Navy Type 815 Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence vessel was operating off the northeast coast of Australia, though it remains out of the country’s territorial waters, the Australian department said.

“The Chinese vessel has remained outside Australian territorial waters but inside the Australian exclusive economic zone in the Coral Sea,” it said.

More than 30,000 troops from Australia, the US, New Zealand, Canada and Japan are taking part in joint war games in the area off the Queensland coast until the end of July.

The three-week training exercise, known as Exercise Talisman Sabre, is the biggest seen in Australia and includes simulated cyber operations, bombardments and air and sea assaults.

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The presence of the PLA ship “has not detracted from the exercise objectives”, the Australian department said.

US military newspaper Stars and Stripes said the enemy in the drills had capabilities equivalent to major powers such as China and Russia. The two countries began a one-week joint military exercise in the Baltic Sea on Friday, which is being closely watched by Western powers.

Li Jie, a Beijing-based military expert, said the Chinese spy ship’s actions were “normal” and should not be overanalysed.

“Every military drill has imaginary foes and it is understandable that they would be conducting close reconnaissance,” Li said.

The Australian defence department said the country respected the right of all states to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters in accordance with international law.

Earlier this month, the Indian Navy said at least 14 Chinese warships had been deployed in the Indian Ocean. The two Asian rivals have been locked in a border stand-off since June after China started building a road in a disputed area on the Doklam Plateau in the Himalayas.

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Just days ago, Wei Liang, the political commissar of the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command, which oversees the PLA’s South Sea Fleet, visited Australia, where he met senior defence officials including the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin. The two sides pledged to reinforce military ties, according to a statement from the Australian defence department.