SYDNEY • Australians enjoying a sunny winter morning were shocked by the sight of three Chinese warships steaming into Sydney Harbour yesterday, forcing Prime Minister Scott Morrison to reassure jittery residents.
Amid heightened concern about Beijing's military muscle-flexing, the appearance of a Chinese flagged task group and around 700 sailors came as a surprise.
It also came as Mr Morrison was away visiting the Solomon Islands, a key player in the South Pacific that China is hoping to woo away from its recognition of Taiwan.
"It may have been a surprise to others, but it certainly wasn't a surprise to the government," Mr Morrison told reporters in the Solomon's capital Honiara when asked about the Chinese naval visit. "We have known about that for some time.
"They were returning after a counter drug trafficking operation in the Middle East."
He described the port call as a "reciprocal visit, because Australian naval vessels have visited China".
The vessels appeared to be the Kunlun Shan, an amphibious landing ship; the Luoma Lake, a replenishment ship; and the Xuchang, a modern frigate believed to be fitted with surface-to-air and anti-submarine missile systems. They are scheduled to stay until Friday.
The timing of their visit has been questioned and also comes just days after it was revealed that a Chinese warship had recently confronted an Australian vessel in the South China Sea, and Australian helicopter pilots had been targeted with lasers.
"I think any reading into timing could be subject to a bit of over-analysis," said Mr Morrison.
Since coming to power, China's President Xi Jinping has invested heavily in the People's Liberation Army and Navy in a bid to project the country's influence across the Pacific and beyond.
"Chinese naval visits to Australia have more typically been a lone frigate, not a task group with an amphibious assault ship and 700 personnel," tweeted Mr Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University. "Sydney is hardly a convenient stopover on their way home from the Gulf of Aden.
"What's the story here? This looks like a serious show of presence in the South Pacific."