SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - A second Chinese surveillance vessel is on track to enter waters off Australia's north-east coast, adding to Beijing's presence in the area as a joint military exercise between Australia and the United States kicked off last week, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported.
Approaching Australia through the Solomon Sea around Papua New Guinea, the vessel joins a larger Chinese auxiliary general intelligence ship that was earlier spotted heading towards the country through the Torres Strait, and is being monitored by Australia's defence force, it said.
The vessels are expected to monitor the Talisman Sabre exercise, a routine military collaboration training between the US and Australia which takes place every two years.
Although Beijing has used intelligence-gathering measures on previous occasions, this is the first time the country has deployed a second vessel and it marks an unusual development, ABC said, citing defence force officials.
More than 17,000 troops from Australia and the US are participating in Talisman Sabre, which is held every two years in Australia, from July 14 to 31.
On the first vessel, Defence Minister Peter Dutton said that it was a "reminder of the ever-present PLA (People's Liberation Army)" in the region.
"We've seen in previous operations the Chinese have a presence and we have been monitoring that for some time," Mr Dutton told reporters.
"We obviously expect they operate according to international law, and we would expect nothing less if we were traversing through international waters close to China as well."
Australia's Defence Force said the exercises, which will largely be held on military bases in Queensland state and offshore, were designed to improve interoperability between the allies.
Britain, Canada, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand will also take part in the exercises while France, Germany, India and Indonesia are sending observers.
Beijing sent similar vessels to monitor Talisman Sabre in 2019 and 2017, local media reported.
In 2019, a Chinese ship remained just outside territorial waters but within Australia's exclusive economic zone, according to the ABC.
"We have rules, and we want everyone to adhere to those rules when it comes to freedom of navigation," Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan said on Sunday (July 18) on Sky News television, when asked about the Chinese sea presence.
The move comes amid escalating geopolitical tensions between Canberra and Beijing, which were exacerbated when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent investigation into the origin of the coronavirus last year - a move he repeated just last week.
Since Mr Morrison's original petition, Beijing has implemented a range of trade reprisals against Australian goods, including coal, wine and barley - measures that have been described by US President Joe Biden's administration as "economic coercion".