China rejects Australia’s accusation of unsafe sea conduct

RFA staff
China rejects Australia’s accusation of unsafe sea conduct The HMAS Toowoomba, a Royal Australian Navy ship, is docked at Changi Naval Base during IMDEX Asia 2023, a maritime defense exhibition in Singapore, May 4, 2023.
Caroline Chia/Reuters

Beijing officials have rejected allegations from Canberra that a Chinese destroyer used its sonar device near divers from a Royal Australian Navy ship in Japanese waters, causing them minor injuries. 

In a statement issued on Monday, China’s defense ministry said the claims from Australian defense officials were “completely untrue.”

“China has firmly rejected Australia's accusations,” said a statement by Chinese defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian.

“China has lodged formal representations with the Australian side.”

The Chinese warship Ningbo (139) was “tracking, monitoring, identifying, and verifying the Australian frigate HMAS Toowoomba in accordance with international laws and regulations,” Wu said.

“The Chinese vessel maintained a safe distance from the Australian ship and did not engage in any actions that could have interfered with the Australian Navy divers' operations.” 

The denial came after Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said in a statement at the weekend that the “unsafe and unprofessional interaction” with a People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyer occurred in international waters, inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

On Nov. 14, divers from HMAS Toowoomba were working to clear entangled fishing nets from its propellers when a Chinese warship approached them in international waters inside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The Australian ship, an ANZAC-class frigate, was enroute to begin a scheduled port visit after conducting operations in the region in support of United Nations sanctions enforcement against North Korea, the Australian defense minister said.

“At all times, HMAS Toowoomba communicated its intention to conduct diving operations on normal maritime channels, and using internationally recognized signals,” Marles said.

Despite warnings that there were divers in the water, the Chinese ship still came closer and operated its hull-mounted sonar device, forcing the divers to surface.

Some of them reported minor injuries, “likely due to being subjected to the sonar pulses from the Chinese destroyer.”

The pulses of sound are used for imaging underwater terrain and surrounding objects but they can be dangerous for divers in the water, causing injuries ranging from hearing loss to ruptured internal organs and even brain hemorrhage.

Marles said that his government “has expressed its serious concerns to the Chinese government” and that “Australia expects all countries, including China, to operate their militaries in a professional and safe manner.”

Wu, the Chinese defense ministry spokesman, also denied allegations that the Chinese vessel had entered Japan’s EEZ and said “there is no demarcation between China and Japan in the relevant waters.”

“We urge the Australian side to respect the facts, stop making reckless and irresponsible accusations against China, do more to build up mutual trust between the two sides, and create a positive atmosphere for the sound development of relations between the two countries and two militaries,” he said.

Dangerous encounters

The Chinese military has been accused multiple times of unsafe encounters with military airplanes and warships from the United States and its allies in the East and South China seas.

Earlier this month, Canada said a Chinese J-11 fighter-jet launched flares directly in front of a Canadian Royal Air Force CH-148 Cyclone helicopter which was conducting routine exercises in the South China Sea, “putting the safety of all personnel involved at unnecessary risk.

In this image made from video provided by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, a People’s Republic of China J-11 is seen from within three meters of a U.S. Air Force B-52 plane over the South China Sea, Oct. 24, 2023. [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command via AP]

On Oct. 24, another Chinese J-11 closed within 3 meters (10 feet) of a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber during a night time intercept over the South China Sea, according to the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command.

The Command released video footage documenting the unsafe intercept of its B-52 bomber which was “lawfully conducting routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace.” 

A week earlier, on Oct. 17, the Pentagon released photos and video clips documenting 15 cases of what it called China’s “coercive and risky operational behavior” against U.S. aircraft in the East China and South China seas during the last two years.

Since 2021, China has engaged in more than 180 incidents of “coercive and risky operational behavior” against its assets acting lawfully in international airspace over the East and South China seas, the U.S. Departent of Defense said.

The number increases to nearly 300 cases if U.S. allied and partner aircraft are included.

The U.S. accused China of carrying out “a centralized and concerted campaign” to prevent American forces from operating safely in the skies and in the seas. 

Beijing has rejected all accusations, in some cases claiming that it was the U.S. who provoked the situations.


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