A minor incident in the East China Sea between the Australian Navy and a Chinese ship last year was blown out of proportion by Defence Minister Richard Marles, acting PM at the time. Former senator and submariner Rex Patrick explains.
Documents just released by the Prime Minister’s office reveal new details about events in the East China Sea and the Australian Government’s response. The incident took place between a Chinese Sovremenny Class Destroyer and HMAS Toowoomba on November 14, 2023, and some of the mainstream media’s China Hawks were making the most of it. If only they had asked the Australian Navy for the real story.
On November 7 last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese held bilateral discussions with Chinese President Xi, Premier Li Qiang and Mr Zhao Leji (Chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee) in Beijing.
It was a nice moment for Albanese. He was the first Australian Prime Minister to visit China since 2016 and the visit signalled a stabilising of the relationship with our biggest trading partner after some difficult moments across the preceding five years. Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong had done some good diplomatic work to get things to that point; although the Chinese side undoubtedly had their own reasons for allowing the thaw in relations.
Many important topics were discussed in Beijing, including – as was to be revealed 11 days later in San Fransisco – closer military-to-military communications. This followed an incident on May 26 when a Chinese military jet passed close by Royal Australian Air Force P8 aircraft, releasing a “bundle of chaff” into its engine.
The Toowoomba incident
While this important meeting was occurring, HMAS Toowoomba, a Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ANZAC class frigate, was engaged in Operation ARGOS, enforcing United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea.
On 14 November, a week after Albanese left Beijing to return to Australia, Toowoomba had finished her work and was steaming in the East China Sea. She was inside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), heading towards the Japanese port of Sasebo for some crew rest and recreation.
As the Australian frigate headed towards Japan, she was shadowed by a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyer. That’s neither unusual nor improper. Australian Navy and Air Force assets do the same thing when Chinese warships are in our neighbourhood.
Mid-afternoon, Toowoomba’s underside became tangled in some fishing nets and debris and had to stop in order to clear it.
All RAN vessels deploy with ship’s divers. They’re different to the Navy’s elite clearance divers, who do a gruelling 36-week course and come out the other side as specialists in underwater battle damage and repair, above-water and underwater explosives and bomb disposal, and underwater special operations.
Ship divers do a short course and are trained only in very basic underwater tasks, such as clearing a ship’s hull. They normally have some other primary role on the ship.
Toowoomba made preparations to put the ship’s divers into the water. That preparation would have included working through a detailed safety checklist for the divers and for the ship’s systems.
As they conducted the onboard preparation Toowoomba contacted the Chinese warship, advised her of the intention to put divers in the water and requested she stay 3 nautical miles (5.5 km) clear of them.
The Chinese warship acknowledged Toowoomba’s communications.
Divers in the water
Flag Alpha, the international flag to indicate there are divers in the water and that vessels should stay clear, was hoisted by Toowoomba, and the ship’s divers entered the water. As they carried out their clearance task, the Chinese destroyer, ignoring the previous request, closed to 1.3 nautical miles (2.4 km).
Toowoomba again contacted the Chinese warship and requested it remain no closer than 2 nautical miles. After acknowledging Toowoomba’s request, it closed to a range of 1580 yards (1.4 kilometres). The ship’s divers continued their work.
The Chinese destroyer then turned away, and as it reached a range of 2,400 yards (2.2 km), it commenced transmissions on its hull-mounted sonar. As a specialist who used to teach sonar and acoustics to RAN sonar operators and warfare officers, I can say with a level of certainty that sonar transmissions at this range, even 235-decibel transmission, would in no way present a danger to the ship’s divers.
However, the act of transmitting would be properly seen as unhelpful, at best, unprofessional at worst, and would have caused Toowoomba’s Commanding Officer to order his divers out of the water as a precaution. The transmission ceased shortly after that
The divers reported mild headaches and eardrum irritation but were assessed by the ship’s medical staff as having no long-term health impacts.
A ‘Defensive Brief’
Consistent with the minor nature of the event, no so-called ‘Flash’ signal appears to have been sent to Canberra. A Flash signal means that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) would have been alerted immediately.
Instead, in a routine manner and without urgency, the Defence Department notified Edwina Stevens, an Assistant Secretary at PM&C, in the early evening of 15 November. This was more than 24 hours after the event.
Stevens notified the PMO at 6:49 PM. The PMO thanked Stevens and asked to be kept posted.
By this stage, Albanese had departed Australia to travel to San Francisco for an APEC summit with plans to meet US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi.
The next morning, November 16, Defence cleared through a chain of at least eleven ADF and civilian officials a Ministerial briefing and “contingency talking points” on the incident.
Defence assessed the Chinese vessel’s action to be “unsafe and unprofessional”. The briefing noted that the Australian Government would raise its concerns about the incident with the Chinese Government, but didn’t propose Australia take any initiative in publicising the matter. The talking points were “reactive only”; that was to say, they were intended to be used by Defence Minister Richard Marles only if any questions were asked by the media.
Being a minor incident Defence wasn’t looking to proactively publicise the matter.
They just needed to be prepared in case the word leaked out.
In the days that followed the APEC summit there would be criticism of the Prime Minister for not raising the matter with President Xi. But Albanese had made the right call. It was something that would properly be left to communications between officials.
Marles blows his trumpet
Defence Minister Marles discussed the incident with Foreign Minister Wong on 16 November. For whatever reason, Marles wanted to make something big of the incident. Maybe he thought he could big note himself while serving as acting Prime Minister, given that his efforts to date as Defence Minister have been pretty lacklustre.
Senator Wong didn’t object and PM&C was informed that the acting Prime Minister would be putting out a media release. However, Marles had to wait until Albanese had finished his APEC meetings in San Francisco. Most likely, Wong recognised that to release a statement on 17 November would complicate Albanese’s meeting with Xi. Albanese would also likely have to respond to media questions and that would overshadow Marles’ brief moment in the sun as acting Prime Minister.
Marles still did an interview on the ABC on 17 November in which he clearly primed things for the following day.
Asked by ABC’s Greg Jennett about Chinese “harassment and shadowing” of Australian ships and planes, Marles observed that the Australian Defence Force engaged “in activities which assert the rules-based order, which in this instance, assert freedom of navigation … Now, we understand that in doing this, there are, from time to time, interactions with the Chinese military. All we’ve ever said there is that we want to make sure that that is done in a way which is professional and which is safe.”
Marles referenced the May P8 aircraft “chaff” incident but remained silent on the Toowoomba event.
The next day, 18 November, at 8:16 am, Defence emailed the Minister a draft media release, pending edits from the PMO. It was gilded with a statement about the ship’s divers receiving “minor injuries”.
Publication of the Defence Minister’s media release occurred after 10 am. There was a predictable flurry of TV reports, newspaper headlines and alarmist media comments boosted by the acting Prime Minister. Diplomatic aftershocks were still being recorded last week, two months after the event.
It was appropriate to announce what had happened, but that could and should have been done by officials in a calm manner befitting the very minor incident that it was.
An unhelpful beat-up
Marles’ beat-up was reminiscent of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton calling a Chinese warship transiting our EEZ “an aggressive act” when it’s something our warships do in China’s EEZ all the time. Dutton was playing ‘tough guy’ in the middle of an election campaign. That’s not an excuse, just an explanation.
Marles’ testosterone moment backfired over the following days, with Dutton making an issue of the Prime Minister not engaging with President Xi.
But Albanese had responded correctly and commensurate to the minor incident it was.
This article flows from a Freedom of Information (FOI) response from the Prime Minister’s Office this week.
The FOI release was quite open about what happened in the East China Sea. Yet last week the Defence Department refused to release any material on the reports that went from Toowoomba to Defence headquarters in Canberra.
China claims their navy wasn’t responsible for the reckless sonar incident involving HMAS Toowoomba. They’ve blamed Japan. @AlboMP yesterday rejected this claim. Yet today our Defence Dept refused to release any records relating to the incident – not a single word!🧵 #FOI #auspol pic.twitter.com/C8YhM4IyKC
— Rex Patrick (@MrRexPatrick) January 19, 2024
I was surprised that Defence would not release even a single word on what happened. But it’s all become clear now. The officers and sailors on HMAS Toowoomba would have conducted themselves professionally throughout the entire diver incident. Afterwards, they would have reported the sequence of events in an accurate and measured way.
Release of what the ship reported to Canberra would likely now embarrass Marles. And that’s why it’s being withheld. There’ll likely be a legal fight. They’re dealing with someone who won’t give up easily.
Albanese, perhaps because of his cautious nature, handled the matter well until Marles put his foot in the Government’s mouth. But one could argue that Albanese still deserves the political bollocking he got, but more for having left Marles in charge without proper supervision.
If Albanese was paying attention, he would know that Marles is happily presiding over a Defence procurement shambles that’s increasingly leaving Australia will little real capability to deploy. Marles is quick with a media release or photo opportunity but not so good on much else. It’s no way to run a Defence Force.