China called Australia's complaint about the incident between the two vessels dangerous, accusing HMAS Toowoomba of “creating a threat” to Chinese fishing boats, “provoking” Chinese vessels and trespassing into China's territorial waters.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was in control Global Times Issued by the Beijing government First indirect reaction On the incident overnight – Canberra was accused of “trying to spread the theory of the China threat”.
The ANZAC-class frigate HMAS Toowoomba has reportedly been withdrawn from “international waters of Japan's exclusive economic zone” in the East China Sea after helping to enforce a trade embargo against North Korea.
Despite acknowledging that the frigate had Australian navy divers in the water to remove the fishing net from the propellers, the Chinese vessel continued to approach before activating its sonar.
Marine divers reportedly suffered ear injuries in the potentially fatal incident.
Professor John Blaxland said the incident followed the behavior of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
“There is a remote possibility that this was a rogue ship captain operating without official blessing,” the Australian National University's head of international security and intelligence said this morning.
“We know there is now a pattern of behavior where we've had laser targets, all kinds of adversarial approaches by Chinese forces towards Australian aircraft and ships.”
Now China's state-controlled media is trying to divert attention from the danger of the situation by accusing Australia of violating China's sovereignty.
“Australia said it had fishing nets entangled around the propellers of its frigate,” said Zhang Junshe, a Communist Party naval analyst.
“This shows that such close intelligence efforts not only threatened China's national security, but also the normal maritime operations of fishing vessels.”
The Global Times questioned Canberra's statement, accusing him of “not revealing the exact location because he has a conscience”.
“Did the incident happen near China's Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands or Taiwan Island?” Or was it close to a PLA training exercise? If that is the case, it was obvious that the Australian ship provoked China in the first place,” another anonymous Chinese military expert reportedly charged.
As Australian Navy divers worked to cut the drift nets, HMAS Toowoomba issued a warning to nearby ships: “I am not under orders”.
The Chinese Sovremenny-class guided-missile destroyer Ningbo (Hull 139) approached the Australian vessel and acknowledged further warnings that divers were in the water.
But the PLAN Ningbo continued to approach before activating its hull-mounted sonar.
Sonar involves blasting a pulse of sound energy through the water. It is designed to travel tens of kilometers – with echoes that reveal nearby submarines and underwater terrain.
But a harsh sound can be deadly.
For a diver in water, a pulse of 200 dB can damage the lungs. At 250 dB, it can cause brain hemorrhage. And even lower levels can cause permanent hearing loss and soft tissue damage.
However, a CCP spokesperson says that “Chinese experts” have “denied the allegations”.
It ignores the issue of divers in the water. Instead, it blames Canberra's public statement for “not mentioning China's contribution to communications between the ships of the two countries”.
“It is very likely that the Chinese ship gave a verbal warning, which the Australian ship ignored, and the Chinese ship was forced to take the next step, which was to send a warning via sonar,” an anonymous Communist Party source was quoted as saying.
“Pinging with sonar is also a means of communication and in this case was likely used to alert the Australian operation.”
Beijing's “blame the victim” tactic
The Global Times The report raises conspiracy theories to defend the actions of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ship.
“The Australian press release widely questions Chinese military experts, particularly the vague location where the incident allegedly took place,” the report said.
It quoted naval analyst Zhang Junshe as saying: “Although Australia claimed the incident took place in Japan's exclusive economic zone, it did not specify the exact location.”
Beijing claims that it has exclusive ownership over almost the entire territory of the East and South China Seas. North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam disagree.
It also claims sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, currently administered by Japan but also claimed by Taiwan.
Therefore, Junshi's insinuation is that HMAS Toowoomba was within China's national borders.
“If the incident occurred in the waters west of Japan, China and Japan have not implemented maritime delimitation in the respective waters, so Japan's self-proclaimed exclusive economic zone may be in waters controlled by China,” Zhang said.
However, under international law, it is perfectly legal for any vessel to pass through the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – unless it is fishing, exploring for mineral resources or any other economic activity that uses the area.
Therefore, if the frigate was near the Senkaku Islands, that is perfectly acceptable – no matter who thinks they own the disputed islands.
“China has been aggressive in the South China Sea, blocking and jamming, literally hitting ships, as a way of operating below the so-called threshold of military conflict in a way that prevents the US from escalating the alliance,” says Professor Blacksland.
“But it allows China to get more of what it wants by bullying its neighbors and bullying Australia.”
The Global Times The report suggests a solution to the crisis of “unsafe, unprofessional” behavior by Chinese military aircraft and warships.
“These countries should stop sending warships and warplanes from thousands of kilometers away to stir up trouble and flex muscles on China's doorstep,” it said.
Professor Blaxland says this is not what Australia should be doing.
“Australia's action has a ripple effect around the region,” he says.
“We have to be very careful in maintaining this approach. We have been engaged in the waters of Northeast Asia for 80 years. We must think very carefully not to back down – but to respond. “
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer @JamieSeidel