Three large Chinese warships have arrived in Sydney Harbour in a show of military might that has shocked locals.
The three ships are docked at Garden Island, the location of a major Royal Australian Navy base in Sydney, after returning from counter drug-trafficking operations in the Middle East, the Australian government said.
The naval exercise was not publicly announced and Sydneysiders were caught off guard by the arrival, with many taking to social media to ask what was going on.
A number of people were critical of the naval exercise, accusing the Australian government of allowing an inappropriate show of force from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
“Nothing to worry about. Just some Chinese warships showing up (un)announced to Sydney Harbour while the newly elected PM is in the Solomon Islands pledging money to subtly curtail China's growing influence in the pacific,” wrote one Australian observer of Twitter.
The fact the public were left in the dark is not a surprise, according to John Blaxland, a professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the ANU.
“Navies operate with the utmost operational security, they don’t tend to broadcast such movements,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
Tiananmen Square massacre 30th anniversary
Prof Blaxland said it was likely the trip was planned before the election and was followed through as “an act of friendship” on behalf of the Australian government amid rising tensions between the two countries.
“Yes this is interesting, yes this is controversial, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not too out of the ordinary,” he said.
Many pointed to the contentious timing of the event as the world mourns the 30th anniversary of China’s bloody Tiananmen Square massacre that saw hundreds of pro-democracy protestors killed by the government.
It also comes as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits the Pacific to boost Australia’s commitment to the region. Australia is set to increase aid to a number of island countries in a move that is widely seen as an effort to push back against Beijing’s efforts to influence Pacific nations.
Prof Blaxland said the issue was a source of tension between the two countries that could be helped by exercises in military cooperation such as this.
“I don’t think they anticipated the pushback on that,” he said, referring to Australia’s well publicised concern over China exerting influence in the region.
“The Pacific is the new battleground,” he added.
Chinese visit planned for some time, Morrison says
Prime Minister Scott Morrison conceded that Sydney residents were surprised as they went about their business this morning but said the visit had been planned for some time and showed the strength of the relationship between the two countries.
"It may have been a surprise to others but it certainly wasn't a surprise to the Government," he said.
He labelled it a "reciprocal visit" as Australian naval vessels had recently visited China.
Despite assurances from the government that the arrival of the ships was a routine operation, some have questioned why the public was not notified ahead of the arrival this morning and suggested there was something more to the story.
Professor and Head of the National Security College, Rory Medcalf, said a visit of this calibre is “actually quite something”.
“Chinese naval visits to Australia have more typically been a lone frigate, not a task group with an amphibious assault ship and 700 personnel,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Sydney is hardly a convenient stopover on their way home from the Gulf of Aden. What’s the story here?”
Last week it was revealed the Australian Navy was recently closely followed by the People’s Liberation Army Navy during a recent voyage through the hotly contested South China Sea.
It was reported that Australian navy helicopters were targeted by lasers that forced pilots to return to their carrier. Defence officials believe China was responsible.
The Chinese ships will be docked in Sydney during a four-day stopover.
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