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RAAF keeps tabs on Chinese
Scrambled: An RAAF P-3 Orion. Picture: Defence

The Federal Government was forced to scramble a surveillance aircraft to shadow three Chinese warships after Beijing conducted a surprise war game off Christmas Island last month.

The West Australian _understands the Defence Department ordered a RAAF P-3 Orion plane to monitor the vessels as they carried out a series of anti-piracy and search and rescue drills.

Chinese media reported this month that a three-ship navy squadron sailed into waters between Australia and Java on January 29 to carry out an exercise.

It is believed to have been be the first time the Chinese navy has come so far south to conduct a drill of this kind.

The episode comes amid growing tensions over China's territorial claims and after warnings from Beijing that Australia should stay out of a dispute between China and Japan.

It is believed Australia was tipped off to the presence of the Chinese vessels by US officials, who had been monitoring their journey south.

The P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft was then scrambled to trail and watch the vessels.

Chinese State media revealed on February 4 the country’s largest amphibious landing ship, the Changbaishan, had travelled to the Indian Ocean, along with two destroyers.
Chinese reports said the squadron passed through the Lombok Strait near Bali before heading north again towards the Philippines.

The Changbaishan is one of China’s most modern warships and is capable of carrying helicopters, more than a thousand troops and amphibious landing craft.

The Defence Department said it was aware of the presence of the Chinese vessels but would not comment on suggestions it had sent an aircraft to keep watch on them.

“(The Chinese vessels’) movement was consistent with international law governing the exercise by military forces of freedom of navigation in international waters,” a Department spokeswoman said.

“Australian naval vessels also exercise the same freedoms.”

Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia have all expressed alarm in recent months at Beijing’s increasingly muscular approach to territorial disputes in the region.

Late last year Beijing took the unusual step of lodging an official protest with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop after Australia objected to China’s establishment of an "air defence zone" in disputed waters off Japan.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra complained of Ms Bishop’s "erroneous remarks" on the issue and appeared to hint free trade talks between Australia and China could be damaged if Australia continued to side with Japan and the US in the dispute.