Navy chief details Beijing’s ‘unusual’ behavior in South China Sea as Australia prepares to welcome more spy ships off Darwin

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Australian warships are “regularly” tracked by Chinese military vessels in disputed waters in the South China Sea, behavior the new navy chief describes as “unusual”.

In a wide-ranging interview, Vice Admiral Mark Hammond insisted that interactions with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remained safe and “professional” and he predicted that Chinese spy ships would closely monitor naval exercises off Darwin next week.

Exercise Kakadu begins on Monday, with ships and planes from more than 20 countries expected to attract the attention of Chinese intelligence-gathering vessels, which have monitored similar activity in recent years.

“The exercise will take place in international waters outside of our territorial waters, and it is not uncommon to see ships from many different countries in this environment,” Vice Admiral Hammond said.

“We are preparing accordingly, and we will phase and manage the exercise accordingly, as we have done in the past,” he added.

The biennial Kakadu exercise was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but in 2018, before diplomatic relations with Beijing deteriorated, the Chinese warship Huangshan was invited to participate in the maritime exercises.

Last year the ABC revealed the arrival of a Chinese Auxiliary General Intelligence (AGI) vessel off the coast of Queensland, which was later joined by a second spy vessel to monitor the Talisman Saber military exercises.

The navy chief declined to speculate on the unlikely possibility of China being invited back to participate in the Kakadu exercise.

“Participating in exercises like this is a political decision,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we are where we are, and I have yet to see an Australian ship invited to a PLA Navy exercise.”

This month’s military exercises in Australia’s northern maritime approaches come amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan following US President Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to the democratic island.

Earlier this year, the ABC revealed that the Australian warship HMAS Parramatta was being closely watched as it sailed through international waters claimed by Beijing. This included being followed by a Chinese nuclear submarine.

Vice Admiral Hammond confirmed that it is now standard practice for Australian warships to be closely followed by the PLA when transiting through the South China Sea.

“Regularly, whenever we have a ship up there, there is a PLA Navy ship in sight, following us quite often. This is unusual behavior,” he said.

“I don’t know of any other Navy that does this. It’s a departure from what we would call normal maritime behavior, but it hasn’t stopped us from conducting our operations.”

When asked if Australian warships were likely to follow the US Navy in sailing through the Taiwan Strait, Vice Admiral Hammond revealed that some transits had occurred in the “past two years”.

“These decisions are political decisions, so if directed, we will continue to make them,” he said.

Navy chief downplays ‘comments’ on submarine plan

Approaching his first 100 days in charge of the Navy, Vice Admiral Hammond also played down a recent warning that overstretched US shipyards may not be able to build future nuclear-powered submarines. Australians.

Last month, the director of the US program for strategic submarines, Rear Admiral Scott Pappano, issued a stark assessment as a special AUKUS task force continues to work with the US and UK on options for Australia’s next fleet.

Vice Admiral Hammond, a career submariner, claimed “there has been a lot of commentary” since AUKUS was announced in September last year.

“I would listen to everything the President of the United States and their authorized spokespersons say about this because I think there will be a lot of different opinions in a lot of different pockets and there certainly aren’t dearth of opinions and comments there.”

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