Chinese spy ship circles Australia’s coast

A sophisticated Chinese spy ship was spotted circling Australia’s coast for three weeks, travelling past sensitive military installations.

A sophisticated Chinese spy ship was spotted circling Australia’s coast for three weeks in August and September, collecting electronic intelligence as it travelled past sensitive military installations.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has confirmed a report in The Daily Telegraph on Friday about the vessel, believed to be a Dongdiao-class spy ship, similar to one which monitored the Talisman Sabre military exercises between Australia and the US earlier this year.

Defence sources told The Daily Telegraph the ship entered Australia’s 200km exclusive economic zone off the coast of Darwin in August before slowly heading south, hugging the coastline.

It reportedly monitored a number of crucial military training areas as it travelled as far south as Sydney, before heading across the Tasman towards New Zealand.

“I can certainly confirm there was a Chinese military vessel operating off the east coast of Australia that transited through the Torres Strait,” Ms Andrews told Seven’s Sunrise program on Friday.

“We are very closely monitoring all vessels that approach Australia and whilst this particular vessel was in our exclusive economic zone and we respect the sovereignty of that particular vessel, we will always respect that level of sovereignty, we do closely monitor any vessel as part of our routine border protection matters but of course, we are very conscious of any vessel is that are in or approaching our waters.”

Under United Nations freedom of navigation rules, it is legal for foreign vessels to enter another country’s exclusive economic zone as long as they do not come within 12 nautical miles of the coast.

China routinely sends spy ships to monitor military exercises near Australia, including in 2017 and 2019.

But the appearance this time was reportedly considered unusual as there were no exercises or war games taking place.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton confirmed the sighting but said “they didn’t break any laws”.

“So they stayed out of our territorial waters,” he told Nine’s Today program.

“It was not the first time. As you’re aware during Operation Talisman Sabre, which was a big training exercise up off the Queensland coast, the PLA had deployed some vessels up there as well. So they will be involved in intelligence collection, signals collection. They’ll be looking to survey different attributes and have that general presence. So let us know that they’re there. And it was a prolonged period that they were very close to Australian waters off the east coast, unusually.”

Asked if the move was provocative, Mr Dutton said Australia was “just going to be realistic about the situation now in the Indo-Pacific”.

“As we know, China has in its fleet up to 355 ships and submarines, that goes to 460 within the next nine years or so. It’s a concerning time and that’s why Australia’s got to be strong and stand up for our values. And I think it’s right that people have a clear picture of what’s going on.”

It comes amid escalating tensions between Canberra and Beijing, with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week attacking the new AUKUS partnership between Australia, the UK and US.

In a speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Mr Xi implied Australia’s deal for nuclear submarines would lead to the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

“We need to pursue dialogue instead of confrontation, build partnerships instead of alliances, and make concerted efforts to address the various negative factors that might threaten or undermine peace,” he said.

“China will never seek hegemony, still less bully smaller countries. China supports ASEAN’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon-free zone.”

Mr Dutton earlier this week refused to back down on warnings over China, amid criticism from Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong that he was talking up the prospect of war over Taiwan as an election tactic.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian also accused Mr Dutton of being “driven by selfish political games”.

“This is the propaganda of the Communist Party,” Mr Dutton said.

“The Communist Party at the moment has 355 ships and submarines in her fleet, and by 2030 that goes to well over 400. So let’s be clear about where China is. They’ve got 20 points of presence in the South China Sea. They are bumping up against Japanese assets in the East China Sea. There’s $20 billion worth of economic coercion against our own country.”

Mr Dutton said Australians had to be realistic about the threat.

“I think if you look at what’s happening in the Indo-Pacific at the moment and you see the ramp up by the Communist Party of China, we need to be realistic about the threat now and over the course of the next couple of decades,” he said.

“And there is no sense sticking your head in the sand pretending it has not happening.”

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