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Australian Defence Force divers were injured a month ago, where’s the response?

Personnel from HMAS Stirling Port Services secure berthing lines as HMAS Toowoomba returns to Fleet Base West in Rockingham, Western Australia. Photo: CPOIS Yuri Ramsey

Public shock has grown decidedly quiet since Royal Australian Navy (RAN) divers were injured by the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) destroyer, CNC Ningbo, more than a month ago.

Public shock has grown decidedly quiet since Royal Australian Navy (RAN) divers were injured by the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) destroyer, CNC Ningbo, more than a month ago.

It leaves two significant questions posed by the non-result of the altercation decidedly unanswered and thus open for speculation. Aside from a prime ministerial outburst, where are the consequences?

And if there are none, just how far can the People’s Republic of China blur the line and use this kind of aggression against Australian Defence Force personnel before they are held to account?


The RAN divers originally sustained minor injuries after being exposed to sonar pulses from the hull-mounted sonar of PLA-N destroyer (DDG-139) operating inside of Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone on 14 November.

At that time, Anzac Class frigate HMAS Toowoomba was deployed to the Indo-Pacific region in support of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea, conducting monitoring and deterring illegal ship-to-ship transfers of sanctioned goods under Operation Argos.

Diving operations were being performed in order to clear fishing nets that had become entangled around the propellors of HMAS Toowoomba.

Ignoring communications on normal maritime channels and internationally recognised signals (and generally accepted international maritime customs) to keep clear of the vessel, the PLA-N destroyer successfully approached and completed its mission to create an international incident in the Indo-Pacific using its hull-mounted sonar.

Australia’s response to the incident was a publicised barrage of comments from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, detailing the PLA-N ship’s behaviour as “unsafe, unprofessional and reckless” and making “the strongest possible objection”.

“This was dangerous; it was unsafe and unprofessional from the Chinese forces,” he said during a televised interview on 20 November.

“This is one of those times where we disagree with the action of China.

“We’ve made it clear that we disagree with what occurred, that we have the strongest possible objection, and that this sort of event should not occur. The frigate involved clearly had out a sign that there were divers below. They were freeing up a fishing net from the equipment that was required under the water. And they should have been allowed to undertake this normal activity without this sort of intervention from the Chinese.

“There’s no misunderstanding as to Australia’s view on this.”

Other than that, there have been no measurable consequences.

There have been no trade penalties, no sanctions, no updated defence policy to prevent a similar incident occurring (that we know of) or even an arrest warrant for the PLA-N staff involved.

I doubt that this lack-lustre show of support holds much comfort for the injured divers or current Royal Australian Navy personnel who continue operations in the Indo-Pacific, knowing that Australia has given the PLA a free hall pass to continue this kind of high-seas banditry.

Hindsight firmly in mind, I also can’t help but wonder what maritime law and self-defence military lines were also crossed during the incident.

The unsolicited approach of a PLA-N destroyer would almost certainly have been seen as a potentially adversarial, albeit indisputably unfriendly action by RAN leadership onboard.

How can it occur that a potentially lethal destroyer first approached, then ignored communications and penetrated the exclusive defensive zone of the HMAS Toowoomba without a forceful response?

Going further, it approached close enough to activate its own equipment against Australian divers, again without response (that we know of). What if that sonar burst had instead been a warning shot across the bow, a rake of machinegun fire or launched torpedo from the PLA-N?

At what point does the RAN ship have a self-defence and safety obligation to put a nice neat hole under the CNC Ningbo’s waterline?

In addition, what would have been the likely response if the PLA-N destroyer had attempted a similar action against a United States warship and its crew? I think we would be hearing about a very different and likely violent reply.

Pentagon press secretary Major General Pat Ryder, when questioned on similar instances of Chinese ships using water cannons and colliding with Philippine vessels in the region, said the Pentagon would not comment on what actions would constitute an armed attack by the PLA Navy.

“It just again demonstrates irresponsible and unsafe behaviour on the part of the People’s Republic of China and why it’s important for all nations to work together in that region to ensure that ships and aircraft can sail wherever international law allows,” he said during an off-camera, on-the-record press briefing on 11 December.

“I think I would focus more on the behaviour (rather than water cannons), what we’re seeing here and the intent. It’s just hugely irresponsible and unsafe when you’re putting seamen at risk at sea, operating in international waters and completely within their rights.

“The behaviour speaks for itself. Whether it’s appropriate or not, I think we can all agree that it’s not the kind of professional behaviour we expect to see from a navy that purportedly is supposedly looking to create peace in the region, and they’re doing the opposite.”

In retrospect, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has also sundered a perfect opportunity to establish a public example of international leadership and continue an upward trend in Australian-Chinese benevolence.

It would have been easy to offer to assist in untangling HMAS Toowoomba, send a few divers of their own to help or conduct a brief exchange of sailors between each vessel; all photographed for the benefit of the world’s press later in a canned public relations victory. Instead, firing off a burst of sonar (with no foreseeable gain) reeks of ill-thought-out tactics and concrete-like inflexibility in naval command initiative under the PLA-N.

In closing, this kind of international incident cannot be left by the wayside to be conveniently forgotten, purely because it is so likely to be repeated in the near future. It’s time to analyse and adapt policy before Royal Australian Navy vessels become the well-trod on welcome mat of the South China Sea.

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