The People’s Republic of China has described recent accusations by the Australian government as “reckless and irresponsible” after Royal Australian Navy divers were injured in international waters.
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The crew of Anzac Class frigate HMAS Toowoomba suffered minor injuries after being exposed to sonar pulses from hull-mounted sonar on the People’s Liberation Army-Navy destroyer operating inside of Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, on 14 November.
Diving operations were being performed in order to clear fishing nets that had become entangled around HMAS Toowoomba’s propellers when a PLA-N destroyer (DDG-139) approached the operation, ignored communications to keep clear of the vessel, and operated its hull-mounted sonar. Medical assessments conducted after the divers exited the water identified they had sustained minor injuries likely due to being subjected to the sonar pulses from the Chinese destroyer.
PRC Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said Australian claims are “completely untrue” and the country has lodged formal representations with the Australian side.
“We urge the Australian side to respect the facts, stop making reckless and irresponsible accusations against China, do more to build up mutual trust between the two sides, and create a positive atmosphere for the sound development of relations between the two countries and two militaries,” he said.
The Chinese warship CNS Ningbo was tracking, monitoring, identifying, and verifying the Australian frigate HMAS Toowoomba in accordance with international laws and regulations. The vessel maintained a safe distance from the Australian ship and did not engage any actions that could have interfered with diving operations, he said.
In addition, PRC military activities did not take place within or enter Japan’s exclusive economic zone, he said.
People’s Republic of China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said that both countries should continue to work on improving international relations.
“The Chinese military is strictly disciplined and always operates professionally in accordance with the international law and international common practices,” she said during a regular press conference held on 20 November.
“We hope relevant parties will stop making trouble in front of China’s doorsteps and work with China to preserve the momentum of improving and growing China–Australia ties.”
The incident occurred while HMAS Toowoomba was deployed to the Indo-Pacific region in support of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea. Under Operation Argos, the vessel and an embarked MH-60R helicopter, Valkyrie, were tasked with monitoring and deterring illegal ship-to-ship transfers of sanctioned goods.
Chief of Joint Operations Lieutenant General Greg Bilton said Australia is committed to enforcing United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea until it takes concrete steps towards denuclearisation.
“This operation is Australia’s contribution to a multinational effort, alongside Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all of which conduct operations in support of UN Security Council resolutions,” LTGEN Bilton said.
“These deployments demonstrate Australia’s commitment to a global rules-based order as part of an international pressure campaign on North Korea to denuclearise.”
Commanding Officer Toowoomba Commander Darin MacDonald said Argos was an important part of the ship’s regional presence deployment.
“We are proud to contribute to the 10th iteration of the RAN’s support to this operation on behalf of Australia,” he said.
“The crew’s hard work is testament to Australia’s continued commitment to regional security and stability.”
After supporting Operation Argos, Toowoomba will continue conducting activities, exercises, and engagements with regional partners during the regional presence deployment.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the entire incident is “regrettable” and the government has put very strong objections, very clearly, and very directly to China via appropriate channels.
“This was dangerous, it was unsafe and unprofessional from the Chinese forces,” he said during a televised interview on 20 November.
“Our major concern, of course, is always for the safety of our Australian Defence Force personnel … and in this case, one person suffered an injury as a result of the actions of China.
“This is a sort of incident that I’ve spoken about when I addressed the Shangri-La Dialogue in June of why we need communication guardrails and we need to avoid a reckless event such as this.
“What I said when I was in China is that we will cooperate where we can but disagree where we must. And 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.”