The Australian Defence Department confirmed reports Saturday that a Chinese spy ship has been operating off the country’s northeast coast in the vicinity of joint military exercises involving Australian, U.S., Japanese and other troops.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy Type 815 Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence vessel has remained outside Australian territorial waters but inside its exclusive economic zone in the Coral Sea, the Defence Department said in a statement.
“The vessel’s presence has not detracted from the Exercise objectives,” the statement said. “Australia respects the rights of all states to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters in accordance with international law.”
Talisman Sabre, a biennial joint military exercise, involves more than 30,000 troops from the United States and Australia, with personnel from Japan, New Zealand and Canada embedded with Australian and U.S. units.
The Ground Self-Defense Force’s 1st Airborne Brigade, 3rd Infantry Battalion — an elite unit likened to the U.S. Army’s Rangers — participated in the exercise as part of a push for increased interoperability with its American counterparts.
Beijing’s growing naval clout, as well as its moves in the disputed South China Sea, have garnered criticism from Washington and Canberra.
China has built up a number of man-made islands in the South China Sea as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
The Chinese intelligence ship was spotted just days after the Australian Defence Department hosted Chinese People’s Liberation Army Gen. Wei Liang, political commissar for the Southern Theatre Command, during a goodwill visit to the country from July 15 to 19.
The spy ship’s operations also came as China and Russia kicked off joint naval exercises in the Baltic Sea on Friday.
The Chinese and the Russian navies were set to hold a series of drills as part of the so-called Joint Sea 2017 exercises, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported. A dozen vessels of different classes, as well as some 10 aircraft and helicopters from both sides were to take part in the first leg of the exercises next week, the Chinese paper said.
The exercises were held for the first time in 2012, it added, and will stretch into autumn this year, with the second phase beginning in September in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan.