Australia, US hold massive war games under gaze of Chinese spy ship

Members of Australia's 16th Regiment guarding a field as US Army Apache Attack helicopters show off their capabilities at Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, Australia.
Members of Australia's 16th Regiment guarding a field as US Army Apache Attack helicopters show off their capabilities at Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, Australia. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Tens of thousands of Australian and United States troops are participating in a military exercise in north-east Australia that marks one of the world's biggest war games.

These exercises, called Talisman Sabre, are held every two years but they now have a new, unwanted "partner": China.

For the second time in a row, a Chinese surveillance ship has been sent to the waters off the coast to spy on the exercises. The ship has reportedly taken a position in Australia's exclusive economic zone but not in its territorial waters.

A senior Australian officer, Lieutenant-General Greg Bilton, told reporters earlier this month that Australia was aware of the vessel and would monitor it: "We're tracking it... It is international waters. They have the right to sail there."

Analysts suggested that the presence of the ship reflected the growing Cold War-style rivalry between the US and China, which has included increased surveillance.

An expert on Australian defence policy, Professor Paul Dibb, emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, said the spy ship would try to gain insights into the hardware being used in the exercises.

But he said the ship's operations were "completely legitimate" and it will remain outside Australian waters, just as American vessels do during their surveillance of Chinese operations.

"America is the No. 1 enemy of China and the most powerful military country in the world, and Australia is America's closest ally in the entire Indo-Pacific region," he told 7News.

"So China will be monitoring our electronic capabilities, using radar to track our high-performance aircraft and gauging the range and accuracy of any missiles."

The exercise, which began on July 11 and continues until next Wednesday, is designed to boost military planning and cooperation between Australia and the US. Notably, this year's exercise also includes Japanese troops for the first time.

Forces from Canada, New Zealand and Britain were also due to participate and delegations from India and South Korea were invited as observers.

The exercises, involving a total of about 34,000 soldiers, are taking place largely at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, a facility that is also used for training by Singaporean troops.

In recent days, the exercises have included a massive beach landing by Australian, US and Japanese troops. "(The objective is) to demonstrate to our partners, our would-be partners, and any would-be adversaries the strength of this alliance," US Colonel Matthew Sieber told reporters on Tuesday.

Asked about the Chinese spy ship, he said: "This is a free and open Indo-Pacific region. We're here to do Talisman Sabre and we're going to continue to do the exercise."

The arrival of the ship comes amid growing Chinese interest in the South Pacific. This included claims earlier this month by Beijing at a forum with Pacific and Caribbean island nations that it wants to deepen military ties. Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe told the forum in Beijing that China wanted to boost counter-terrorism cooperation and peacekeeping and strengthen exchanges as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, according to a report by China's Xinhua news agency.

China has also been boosting aid across the South Pacific.

According to a Lowy Institute analysis, China has become the second-biggest donor in the region, providing US$1.47 billion (S$2 billion) between 2011 and 2018. But this was still much less than that provided by Australia, the largest donor, which spent US$6.58 billion in funding during the same period.

To try to counter China's growing influence in the Pacific, Australia three years ago launched a wide-ranging diplomatic initiative - the "Pacific step-up" - to boost its ties with its neighbours.

This has included plans for a A$2 billion (S$1.9 billion) infrastructure fund and for the development - with the US and Papua New Guinea - of a naval base on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Mr Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Australia should publicly protest against the presence of the Chinese spy ship.

He said Australia, whose largest trading partner is China, was too quick to forgive Chinese intelligence gathering and cyber espionage because of concerns about the impact on its economic relationship. "We should call them out and make China understand it is something we just don't welcome," he told 3AW Radio.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2019, with the headline Australia, US hold massive war games under gaze of Chinese spy ship. Subscribe