China has called Australia’s complaint over a dangerous incident between two warships “vague and one-sided” and has accused HMAS Toowoomba of “posing a threat” to China’s fishing boats, “provoking” Chinese warships and intruding on Chinese territorial waters.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controlled Global Times issued Beijing government’s first oblique reaction to the incident overnight — accusing Canberra of attempting to “hype the China threat theory”.
The ANZAC-class frigate HMAS Toowoomba was reportedly disabled in “international waters inside of Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone” in the East China Sea after helping enforce a trade embargo against North Korea.
Despite acknowledging the frigate had Aussie naval divers in the water to untangle a fishing net from its propellers, a Chinese warship continued to approach before activating its sonar.
Naval divers reportedly suffered injuries to their ears in the potentially fatal incident.
Professor John Blaxland said the incident followed an established pattern of behaviour displayed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“There is some remote prospect that this was a rogue ship captain operating without official blessing,” the head of the Australian National University’s International Security and Intelligence unit said this morning.
“We know there is a pattern of behaviour now where we have had our aircraft lasered designated, all sorts of demonstrations of adversarial approach by Chinese forces towards Australia aircraft and ships.”
Now China’s state-controlled media is attempting to deflect attention from the danger of the situation by accusing Australia of breaching China’s sovereignty.
“Australia said it had fishing nets that had become entangled around its frigate’s propellers,” Communist Party naval analyst Zhang Junshe states.
“It shows that such a close-in reconnaissance attempt not only posed threats to China’s national security, but also to the normal maritime work of fishing boats.”
The Global Times cast doubt on Canberra’s statement, accusing it of choosing “not to disclose the exact location because it has a guilty conscience”.
“Did the incident take place near China’s Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands or the island of Taiwan? Or was it close to a PLA training exercise? If that is the case, it was obvious that the Australian warship provoked China in the first place,” another anonymous Chinese military expert reportedly accused.
As Aussie naval divers worked to cut away the drifting nets, HMAS Toowoomba issued an “I am not under command” warning to nearby vessels.
The Chinese Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyer Ningbo (Hull 139) approached the Australian warship and acknowledged a further warning that divers were in the water.
But the PLAN Ningbo continued to approach before activating its hull-mounted sonar.
Sonar involves blasting a pulse of sound energy into the water. It’s designed to reach across dozens of kilometres — with echoes exposing surrounding submarines and underwater terrain.
But raw sound can be deadly.
For a diver in the water, a 200db pulse can rupture lungs. At 250db, it can trigger brain haemorrhaging. And even much lower levels can result in permanent hearing loss and soft tissue damage.
The CCP mouthpiece, however, says “Chinese experts” have “refuted the accusations”.
It ignores the matter of divers being in the water. Instead, it accuses Canberra’s public statement of failing “to mention the Chinese input during the communications between the two countries’ ships”.
“It is very likely that the Chinese ship issued verbal warnings which the Australian ship had ignored, and the Chinese ship was forced to take the ensuing step which was to send a warning through sonar,” it quotes the anonymous Communist Party source as saying.
“Pinging with sonar is also a means to communicate, and in this case, was likely used to warn the Australian operation.”
Beijing’s ‘blame the victim’ tactic
The Global Times report raises a conspiracy theory to defend the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warship’s actions.
“The Australian press release is widely questioned by Chinese military experts, especially about the vague location given where the incident is supposed to have taken place,” the report states.
It quotes naval analyst Zhang Junshe, “While Australia claimed the incident happened in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, it did not give the exact location.”
Beijing insists it has exclusive ownership of almost the entirety of the East and South China Seas. North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam disagree.
It also claims sovereignty over the remote Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are currently administered by Japan but also claimed by Taiwan.
Junshie’s insinuation is, therefore, that HMAS Toowoomba was inside Chinese national boundaries.
“If the incident took place in waters to the west of Japan, China and Japan have not carried out maritime delimitation in relevant waters, so Japan’s self-proclaimed exclusive economic zone could be well within waters administered by China,” Zhang said.
Under international law, however, it is perfectly legal for any ship to pass through an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) — so long as it’s not fishing, surveying for mineral resources or engaging in any other economic activity that exploits that location.
Therefore, if the frigate was near the Senkaku Islands, that is perfectly acceptable — no matter who thinks they own the disputed islands.
“China has been aggressive in the South China Sea, blocking and barging, literally ramming ships as a way of operating below the so-called military conflict threshold in a way that prevents the United States alliance from being triggered,” says Prof Blaxland.
“But it does allow China to get more from what it wants through intimidating its neighbours and intimidating Australia.”
The Global Times report offers a solution to the ongoing crisis of “unsafe, unprofessional” behaviour from Chinese warplanes and warships”.
“These countries should stop sending warships and warplanes from thousands of kilometres away to stir up troubles and flex their muscles on China’s doorstep,” it says.
Prof Blaxland says that’s precisely not what Australia should do.
“Australia’s action has a demonstration effect around the region,” he says.
“We need to be very careful about maintaining this approach. We have been engaged in northeast Asian waters for 80 years now. We should be thinking very carefully about not backing down — but responding.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel