A SMALL armada of Australian warships is headed north towards the South China Sea in a gritty show of resolve, but the Turnbull government has not made a final decision on just how close our navy will get to the contested waters.
The Turnbull government has boldly forged ahead with long-held plans to send six Navy ships to conduct a series of military exercises in the Indo-Pacific region, in the biggest task-group deployment in more than 30 years.
The move that has already triggered criticism from China in its media outlets.
The Daily Telegraph understands there have been recent high-level discussions by senior ministers and department heads about Australia’s strategic options in the western pacific and what our stance should be in dealing with the South China Sea territorial disputes.
The meetings have not discussed the specifics of any particular naval deployment, including the current one, but have dealt with our strategy in the region.
A final decision has not been made about the transit routes of the six naval ships carrying 1200 Australian Defence Force personnel, which left Australia on September 4 for two months.
Canberra-class assault ship HMAS Adelaide is leading the deployment, which also includes HMAS Melbourne, HMAS Darwin, HMAS Toowoomba, HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Sirius.
Defence Minister Marise Payne said the task group “will demonstrate the ADF’s ability to operate across the full spectrum of military operations, from high-end military capabilities such as anti-submarine warfare to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
The deeper strategic rationale of transiting through that part of the world is maintaining Australia’s presence in the western Pacific. It is also a show of resolve that Australia intends to maintain a presence in the region, and is consistent with Australia’s White Papers from 2009, 2013 and 2016.
China’s state-owned media, People’s Daily, has had a hostile reaction, claiming the military exercise meant Australia was encircling China. One senior Liberal source said the exercise, while planned 12 months ago, would be read by China as “implied pressure” in the context of North Korea.
But The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s executive director Peter Jennings said Mr Turnbull’s pressure on China was overt, and it was ridiculous to suggest that Australia is encircling China.
“The Prime Minister’s pressure on China has been precise and explicit,” he said.
“It’s still one of the sillier comments to have emerged from the Chinese press.”
By SHARRI MARKSON
The Daily Telegraph