In an apparently planned port visit, three People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels have entered Sydney Harbour on their return voyage from the Gulf of Aden – raising questions and signalling alarms for many.
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The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) task group consisted of three vessels included the Type 054A Class guided missile frigate Xuchang, the Type 071 amphibious transport dock Kunlun Shan, and the Type 903/A fleet auxiliary replenishment ship Luomahu.
Returning from a counter-piracy deployment in the Gulf of Aden, the three vessels will stay in Sydney for four days as part of the return leg from operations - the arrival this morning raised a number of eyebrows as the arrival was kept largely under wraps, with reports the request was formally made "a few weeks ago" and being approved last week.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison moved to reassure concerned Sydneysiders that the port visit was scheduled and part of a reciprocal relationship between Australia and China that sees both nation's host each navy's vessels.
"This was a program of a reciprocal visit. They were returning after a counter drug trafficking operation in the Middle East. That is a further demonstration of the relationship that we have and this had been in train for some time. It may have been a surprise to others but it certainly wasn’t a surprise to the government," Prime Minister Morrison said from the Solomon Islands.
The Royal Australian Navy's Adelaide Class frigate HMAS Melbourne visited China last month as part of celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the PLAN.
Despite PM Morrison's claims, the arrival of the Chinese task force has prompted a range of questions, with Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University's National Security College, tweeting, "This is actually quite something. Chinese naval visits to Australia have more typically been a lone frigate, not a task group with an amphibious assault ship and 700 personnel. Sydney is hardly a convenient stopover on their way home from the Gulf of Aden. What's the story here?"
The Type 054A is a class of multi-role frigates, the first of which entered service with the PLAN in 2007. The Type 054A has a displacement of 4,053 tonnes and maximum speed of 27 knots. The ships carry a range of weapons including 76mm dual purpose gun and HQ-15 air defence, surface-to-air-missiles, C-803 anti-ship/land attack cruise missiles and a range of rocket launchers.
The Type 071 is an amphibious transport dock capable of embarking 600 to 800 troops and incorporates a well deck to house up to four Type 726 air-cushioned landing craft, which can be used to transfer vehicles or marines to shore at high speed. The Type 071 has a maximum displacement of 25,000 tonnes and max speed of 25 knots.
These amphibious warfare ships are capable of embarking 15-20 armoured fighting vehicles ranging from amphibious armoured vehicles and main battle tanks, and the Type 071 is armed with a single 76mm main gun and hosts four Z-8 Super Frelon helicopters.
China's Type 903/A is a fleet of eight planned replenishment ships providing long-range at-sea replenishment and logistics support for deployed Chinese and allied naval assets. The Type 903 vessels have a maximum displacement of 23,400 tonnes and maximum speed of 20 knots. They carry 10,500 tonnes of fuel oil, 250 tonnes of fresh water and 680 tonnes of cargo and ammunition.