In the aftermath of an altercation between an Australian naval vessel, HMAS Toowoomba, and a People’s Liberation Army-Navy destroyer from China, a disconcerting revelation surfaces. The Chinese warship’s deployment of sonar, deemed “unsafe and unprofessional,” is suspected of causing injury to the Australian navy divers engaged in a routine operation within international waters.
Perilous Encounter at Sea
During this incident, which transpired prior to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s pivotal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the APEC summit, divers aboard HMAS Toowoomba reported minor ear damage. The PLA-N destroyer, despite prior warnings of Australian personnel in the vicinity, persisted in utilizing its potent sonar.
Defense Minister Richard Marles, acting as prime minister in Albanese’s absence, termed the event an “unsafe and unprofessional interaction.” Emphasizing Australia’s expectation of professional and safe military operations from all nations, including China, Marles elucidated that HMAS Toowoomba had paused to address entangled fishing nets around its propellers. The PLA-N destroyer was duly informed of ongoing diving operations and urged to maintain a safe distance.
Despite communication efforts, the Chinese vessel approached closer, subsequently deploying its hull-mounted sonar in a manner endangering the Australian divers. Medical evaluations conducted post-exit from the water revealed minor injuries likely attributable to the sonar pulses emitted by the Chinese destroyer.
HMAS Toowoomba’s presence in the region, situated within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, was outlined as part of scheduled operations supporting United Nations sanctions enforcement and en route to a planned port visit.
Delayed Disclosure Sparks Questions
Curiously, the Australian government chose to disclose the incident only on Saturday, following Prime Minister Albanese’s meeting with President Xi Jinping at APEC. Opposition spokesman James Paterson questioned this timing, suggesting that raising the matter directly with Xi during the APEC summit would have been more fitting.
The extent of any discussion between Albanese and Xi regarding the incident remains undisclosed. Defense Minister Marles conveyed the government’s “serious concerns” to China. Paterson criticized the actions of the Chinese vessel as “incredibly risky” and characterized them as inappropriate and contrary to friendly conduct.
Analyzing the situation, Dr. Euan Graham of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute pondered whether China was aware of the presence of divers in the water. Regardless, he deemed the actions “obviously unsafe and unprofessional,” expressing concerns over China’s recurrent engagement in so-called ‘grey zone’ activities, disrupting collaborations between Australia and Japan.
Diplomatic Fallout and Unanswered Queries
Graham highlighted the inconsistency of such actions with recent diplomatic relations, especially considering Prime Minister Albanese’s groundbreaking visit to China. He contemplated whether these incidents reflected a deliberate attempt at incongruity in diplomatic gestures.
Pattern of Provocative Behavior Emerges
Executive Director Neil James of the Australian Defence Association found the incident perplexing, particularly in light of Albanese’s recent trip to China. Drawing parallels with a previous incident involving Qantas pilots warned about GPS jamming suspected from South China Sea warships, James raised concerns about a potential pattern of “unnecessary and provocative behavior.”
Reflecting on past incidents involving a Chinese warship targeting an RAAF aircraft with a military-grade laser and a spy ship tracking near a naval communications base, James warned that continued provocations could strain diplomatic relations, underscoring the complexity of the Australia-China relationship.
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