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Chinese Spy ship in Australian waters adds to Beijing-Canberra rift

A Chinese spy ship (Photo courtesy: USNI)

The Australian media is agog with reports of a Chinese spy ship in Australian waters just as the country down under is holding its largest war games with the US, Canada, South Korea, New Zealand and the UK.

In an exclusive piece by defence correspondent Andrew Greene, the ABC News website reported on Tuesday that the Australian military has been keeping an eye on the "high-tech Chinese surveillance ship" Tianwangxing near Queensland waters. The article quoted Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton as saying: "We are aware that the People's Liberation Army (Navy) general intelligence ship Tianwangxing is approaching Australia's east coast via the Torres Strait".

The Chinese spy vessel is in Australian waters to monitor the Talisman Sabre 2021 war games involving Australia, the US and other countries.

ABC News said that the Tianwangxing is fitted with advanced communications systems including several clearly visible spherical domes, which shield dish antennas that collect and intercept radio signals and give it a distinct profile.

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In 2017 and 2019 also, the Chinese had sent their spy ship to Australia to monitor the Talisman Sabre war games–touted as Australia's largest military exercise. However, this year the number of international participants has been scaled down due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another Australian news website, news.com.au, reported that the "Type 815 intelligence vessel Tianwangxing (Uranus) was shadowed by patrol boat HMAS Childers and surveillance aircraft as it approached Queensland".

The Chinese ship will sail outside Australia’s territorial boundary but within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The Australian government says that as long as the ship does not indulge in commercial activities like fishing in Australia's EEZ, it does not violate international law.

News.com.au quoted Prime Minister Scott Morrison telling Radio 2SM that he was “very wary” of the ship’s presence. “We wouldn’t be watching them if we weren’t. Of course we’re watching them. And they’re watching us. The law of the sea says we can be up in the South China Sea. And so we simply say that we think the same tolerances and the same appreciation of those international laws should apply”, Morrison said.

By not shooing away the Chinese vessel, Australia also makes a case for free and open seas around the globe. Morrison's comment makes it clear that China has to accept the presence of other ships around the South China Sea under the same rules which allow it to send its spy vessel to Australian waters.

The Talisman Sabre exercise will include amphibious land assault to dislodge enemy troops. The exercise is also about developing interoperability with friendly forces as well as taking air support—all of which are of great interest to China as it flexes its military muscle in the Indo-Pacific region.

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