Chinese warships have carried out naval drills in Australia’s maritime backyard for the third time in three years in a move that experts say strengthens the case for greater co-operation with Indonesia.
China’s state media have reported that two missile destroyers and a supply ship conducted combat exercises during a 25-day voyage that took them close to Australia’s Christmas Island.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy made major headlines in early 2014 when they carried out similar drills in the eastern Indian Ocean close to Australian territory for the first time. This was followed by anti-piracy exercises close to Christmas Island in May last year.
It is understood the Australia Defence Force monitored the latest Chinese activities and the ships’ passage between Indonesian Java and Christmas Island.
Experts said that Australia needed to get used to a greater Chinese naval presence in seas to its immediate north and west, which in turn would demand more maritime surveillance including in co-operation with Indonesia.
Rory Medcalf, head of the national security college at the Australian National University, said the latest drills showed that Beijing’s “maritime silk road” initiative of creating global sea corridors was “much more than an economic initiative” but also had a military dimension.
“It confirms that the Chinese navy is going to get into the habit of substantial deployments to the Indian Ocean on a regular basis and that the Chinese navy recognises the great strategic significance of the waters near the Sunda Strait and Australia’s Christmas Island,” Professor Medcalf said.
“This in turn confirms the need for Australia to deepen its investment in maritime surveillance close to our Indian Ocean territories.”
He said the fact that China had carried out the combat, counter-terrorism and anti-piracy drills on its own rather than in partnership with other countries in the region meant “it looks like China is choosing the unilateral path, which can only raise the security anxieties of others in the region”.
He added that the latest drills also showed “the importance of strengthening maritime co-operation with Indonesia so we can share an operating picture with them of what’s happening” – a view shared by other analysts.
Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute said Australia’s new acquisitions such as P-8 Poseidon aircraft and Triton drones would allow greater maritime monitoring. Meanwhile the hardware the PLA Navy was building such as fast attack missile craft and huge logistics vessels showed a growing ambition to operate in waters well beyond its near region.
Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said that China was “going to deploy naval force into our backyard on a more regular basis”.
“We can’t ignore that. We’re going to have to start responding to it, not in an aggressive way but definitely in maritime awareness. We want to keep track of what’s happening out there.”
The analysts all said that China’s greatest strategic interest in familiarising its navy with these waters is that in the event of a crisis or conflict its adversaries would likely blockade the Malacca Strait on which China depends for energy supplies.
The Sunda and Lombok straits are the natural alternative route if the Malacca Strait is impassable to Chinese vessels.