The watchers were being watched — closely.
- Defence Force last week spotted the People’s Liberation Army intelligence ship in international waters
- “We are very conscious of their behaviour,” Marise Payne says
- Chinese patrols likely to be repeated in the future, Chinese newspaper says
Defence Minister Marise Payne said Australia was monitoring a Chinese spy ship “very carefully” as the vessel observed military exercises between Australia and the United States earlier this month.
The ABC revealed last week the Defence Force spotted the People’s Liberation Army intelligence ship in international waters near the Talisman Sabre war games in Queensland.
Senior military officials privately called the move “provocative”, although the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been quick to play down the encounter, stressing China had the right to sail close to Australia while remaining in international waters.
Senator Payne echoed Ms Bishop’s comments, but also pointedly observed Australia had been keeping a close eye on the high-tech Chinese vessel.
“They were not particularly doing anything wrong but we are very conscious of their behaviour and conscious of the activities they have underway,” Senator Payne said.
“These sorts of acts are in the bounds of international law, but we watch very carefully, and one shouldn’t underestimate the care with which we do watch.”
Australian officials and politicians have been careful not to publicly criticise China for sending the ship to observe Talisman Sabre from international waters.
That is partly because the Government has repeatedly told China it should respect freedom of navigation in international waters in the contested South China Sea.
Senator Payne said Australia’s position had been consistent.
“We are strong adherents to the rule of law and to the observation of international law, and that supports freedom of overflight and freedom of navigation,” Senator Payne said.
“If I were to express a contrary view that would be counter to the long-held view we have had.”
China has criticised the US Navy for conducting surveillance patrols in international waters in the South China Sea, calling it a “serious threat” to its security.
But Senator Payne seemed to imply China’s patrols off Australia’s coast undermined Beijing’s arguments about the South China Sea.
“[China’s] exercising freedom of navigation and overflight, as you’d expect we would do in the seas and oceans through our region some of which carry considerable amounts of the world’s trade,” she said.
Some state-owned newspapers in China have accused the Australian media of hyping reports of the Chinese spy ship.
An editorial in the nationalist Global Times paper said similar Chinese patrols were likely to be repeated in the future.
“While the US and its allies always conduct joint patrols unilaterally in the South China Sea, China’s naval vessels and spy ships have now started to appear in the waters significant to the West,” the editorial said.
“Obviously, this is just a beginning of China’s future operations. China will build more warships and meanwhile make full use of them.”
By Stephen Dziedzic