China’s “Spy Ship” off the Queensland Coast: A Comment


31 July 2017

In July of this year the Australian Navy was engaged in the biennial naval exercise code named Operation Talisman Sabre. This exercise is conducted jointly with units of the US Navy and Marines and occasionally joined by other nations. This year, military forces from New Zealand, Canada and Japan as well as the US were part of the exercise. It is the largest exercise of its type that Australia participates in.

This year the exercises took place of the North Queensland coast in the Coral Sea. In previous years the exercises have included practising the blockading of the Malacca Straits, a narrow waterway through which more than 70 percent of China’s water borne trade passes and is particularly vital for oil and gas imports. To therefore describe the exercises as “no threat to China” as Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute did, ( 24 July 2017) is plainly nonsense.

The difference with this year’s Operation Talisman Sabre exercise is that it was monitored by an Auxiliary General Intelligence (AGI) Type-815 ship of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The reporting of this event in the local media was instructive.

The ABC ( 22 July 2017) quoted unnamed Australian defence officials as saying that the ship’s presence was “unfriendly” and “provocative “. A further comment from Dr Graham quoted by the ABC described the deployment of the Chinese ship as “an alarming development”.

A report of the Australian media reaction in China’s government outlet Global Times ( 24 July 2017) quoted further unattributed reports in the Australian media as saying the ship’s presence was “aggressive” and “worrying “.

A few basic facts have been obscured or omitted in what was fundamentally a media beat up of the story. The first is that the Chinese ship was at all times operating in international waters. It was perfectly entitled under international maritime law to be operating in those waters.

Secondly, the basic principle at issue is what is commonly referred to as ‘freedom of navigation’, a right that both the US and Australia loudly proclaim is their entitlement in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The question might reasonably be posed, which is the more provocative, unfriendly or a worry to the nearest major power: a Chinese ship operating in international waters and monitoring a military exercise, the rationale for at least part of which is designed to prepare for possible hostile action against China; or US warships and military aircraft sailing and flying within the 12 nautical mile limit of Nansha and Xisha Islands? It is a question that the Australian mainstream media prefer not to ask.

Thirdly, the perceived problem with the PLAN ship’s presence was not only that its appearance was “provocative “ and “aggressive” but also that it was carrying out electronic surveillance of the Talisman Sabre exercises. In short, the Haiwingxing was a “spy ship”.

The ADF’s official reaction was more measured. In a statement the ADF said “the vessel’s presence had not detracted from the exercises’s objectives”. Further, the statement went on, “Australia respects the rights of all states to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters in accordance with international law”.

What none of the media reports noted is that the Haiwingxing was doing no more than the US is doing in waters bordering every nation on earth including, if one wishes to use the word ‘provocative ‘ as applied to the Chinese vessel, in the coastal waters of Russia and China. As recently as within the past month a massive American armada has been conducting military exercises off the Korean coast, which rather puts words like unfriendly, provocative and alarming in a proper context.

As far as we know, no Australian Navy ships are engaged in electronic surveillance of other nations, but that is certainly not true of Pine Gap, which is a spy facility par excellence, and only one of several such electronic monitoring facilities on the Australian mainland. In the event of an actual war, Pine Gap and others would be prime nuclear targets precisely because of their role in electronic monitoring and providing guidance for sundry lethal weapons.

Those recently “celebrating” the 50th anniversary of Pine Gap’s existence and prime surveillance role seem utterly incapable of making the connection between Australia’s role in the American war machine and why a targeted great power would therefore show an interest in its activities and related off-shore military exercises.

Yet no Australian media describes this electronic spying as “aggressive” or “provocative “ although they are clearly activities aimed at enhancing a warfare capability against countries with whom we currently have peaceful relations, and in the case of China, are also our largest trading partner by a considerable margin.

The manufactured concern over the Chinese ship’s presence and activity must therefore be seen as part of a wider campaign to denigrate China, as witnessed by the coverage of the South China Sea dispute, the severely deficient coverage of the Belt and Road Initiative, and the complete failure to recognise how the geopolitical centre of gravity has shifted. The mainstream media’s myopia in this regard will only further isolate Australia from playing a meaningful role in the emerging multipolar world.

*Barrister at law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s