Chinese experts refute Australian accusations of naval incident, citing one-sided claims

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A screenshot from navy.81.cn shows the PLA Eastern Theater Command Navy conducting exercises in early 2021, with the participation of the Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers Hangzhou (Hull 136) and Ningbo (Hull 139).

20th November 2023 – (Beijing) Chinese experts have dismissed accusations made by Australia regarding an incident involving a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) destroyer and an Australian frigate. They argue that the Australian statement is vague, one-sided, and seeks to amplify the “China threat” narrative.

According to a press release from the Australian Defence Department on Saturday, the HMAS Toowoomba, an Anzac-class frigate of the Royal Australian Navy, was conducting diving operations in international waters within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) en route to a scheduled port visit. During these operations, the Australian vessel alleged that the Chinese Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyer Ningbo (Hull 139) approached dangerously close, using sonar in a manner that threatened the safety of Australian divers, forcing them to exit the water.

Chinese military experts have raised questions about the Australian press release, particularly regarding the lack of precise location information. Zhang Junshe, a Chinese naval expert, pointed out that while Australia claimed the incident occurred within Japan’s EEZ, it did not provide the exact location. If the incident occurred in waters west of Japan, where China and Japan have not conducted maritime delimitation, Japan’s self-proclaimed EEZ could potentially overlap with waters administered by China.

Another anonymous Chinese military expert suggested that Australia intentionally withheld the precise location due to a guilty conscience. The expert questioned whether the incident took place near China’s Diaoyu Islands or Taiwan, or if it was close to a PLA training exercise, implying that the Australian warship may have provoked China.

Analysts have criticized the Australian press release for its one-sided nature, alleging that it failed to mention the Chinese input during the communication between the two countries’ ships. Given Australia’s admission of establishing communication with the Chinese side, it is likely that the Chinese ship issued verbal warnings that were ignored by the Australian ship. The subsequent use of sonar warnings by the Chinese ship was likely a response to this, the anonymous expert suggested.

The experts explained that sonar systems are primarily used to detect submarines and underwater terrain, similar to radar systems used for aircraft detection. They clarified that active sonar generates sound waves underwater and can be used as a means of communication and warning.

Regarding Australia’s claim of minor injuries to the divers caused by sonar pulses, analysts considered the wording to be vague and lacking evidence. Zhang argued that Australia’s entangled fishing nets around the frigate’s propellers indicated that the close reconnaissance attempt not only posed threats to China’s national security but also to the normal maritime activities of fishing boats.

Observers noted that countries like Australia and Canada have repeatedly accused Chinese warships and warplanes of “unsafe, unprofessional” interactions near China’s doorstep under the pretext of enforcing UN sanctions. Chinese experts emphasized that alert patrols by Chinese forces in their own region should not be sensationalized as a “China threat.”

Experts called on these countries to refrain from sending warships and warplanes thousands of kilometres away to provoke tensions and flex their muscles near China’s borders. They emphasized the importance of respecting regional stability and refraining from actions that could escalate tensions unnecessarily.