Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:29 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:29 | SYDNEY

Naval exercises sooth tensions


Rory Medcalf


30 September 2010 09:08

After a rocky patch, defence relations between China and Australia are back on track in a tangible way, with parallel bilateral naval exercises off the Chinese and Australian coasts. One of these even included some gunnery — a far cry from the minimalist search-and-rescue training usually held by navies that neither know nor trust each other particularly well.

Last Friday I was privileged to observe the more modest of the two activities, a so-called 'passage exercise' involving the Australian frigate HMAS Sydney, the Chinese frigate Mianyang and the Chinese training ship Zheng He. The ships steamed out of Sydney Harbour to practise basic manoeuvre and communication drills about 20 nautical miles off the New South Wales coast. (Photos of the event featured in this post are by my colleague, Ashley Townshend.)

In a display of goodwill and transparency, however limited, personnel were exchanged for the day — HMAS Sydney hosted Chinese officers and cadets, while some of its own officers and crew visited the Chinese ships. A day earlier, off the Shandong Peninsula in north-eastern China, the Australian frigate HMAS Warramunga conducted the first ever live-fire exercise between the Royal Australian Navy and the People's Liberation Army Navy.

It was quite a contrast to the troubled military-to-military relationship between Washington and Beijing, which remains suspended after Chinese pique over arms sales to Taiwan, even though there is now talk of that dialogue being resumed. It was an even starker contrast to China's diplomacy with Japan, India, South Korea and Vietnam, which has hit turbulent waters.

What does all this mean' Naturally, it pays to read between the lines of the press releases and to look behind the smiles of military men doing diplomacy.

Any suggestion that practical navy-to-navy cooperation and dialogue means that Australia is somehow slipping into China's strategic orbit and placing less importance on the alliance with the US – or on promising partnerships with Japan, South Korea and India — is wrong. Indeed, HMAS Warramunga's tour of North Asia included a re-enactment of the Incheon landing, a sign of Australian solidarity with South Korea and the US in these tense times on the Korean Peninsula.

The bottom line is that there are shared security benefits to be derived from navies getting to know each other better: improved channels of communication, understanding of each other's command systems and ways of operating, even basic awareness of the level of seamanship each side is capable of, all of which can help to calibrate decisions and liaison in a crisis. This applies at least as much to nations that might have clashes of interests at sea as it does to those who see their objectives as generally in harmony. That is why China's reluctance to resume military links with the US has been so self-defeating, and needs to end soon, for everybody's sake.

It is not as if Australia is the only regional nation wary of China that sees merit in engaging with the Chinese navy. Singapore has done so of late — even if, oddly, the Chinese media has been more open about that fact than has Singapore's media.

And whatever you think of Hugh White's controversial thesis (and its even darker, more determinist variants about Australia's choices as China rises), it is plain that we will be bumping into Chinese ships more and more in the neighbourhood. After all, the PLA-N task group that found itself in sunny Sydney last week was fresh from a fairly much unprecedented 'friendship' (and no doubt information-gathering) tour of the South Pacific. It won't be Beijing's last.