I recently sailed onboard the landing helicopter dock and Royal Australian Navy flagship HMAS Canberra from Vietnam to Singapore, as one of several academic sea-riders invited to observe Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 (IPE 19), which has now concluded after three months at sea.
A key question about this operation was what did the People’s Liberation Army Navy make of so much Australian activity in waters that China claims? Sailors tend to have a healthy professional regard for each other. The good news is that interactions between the RAN and PLAN remain cordial.
But we were followed at a discreet distance by a Chinese warship for most of the transit, both on the way up and back, despite the fact that our route didn’t take us near any feature occupied by Chinese forces, or any obviously sensitive areas. Bridge-to-bridge radio communications, I was told, while courteous, included requests for Australian warships to notify the Chinese in advance of any corrections to their course—something the RAN was not about to concede while exercising its high-seas freedoms.
The presence of our ‘trailing escort’—HMAS Parramatta apparently received similar attention from the PLAN—had no obvious effect on HMAS Canberra’s activities, including maintaining a brisk pace of flight operations. The army’s Tiger attack helicopters practised night flying and deck landings, as they start to develop a maritime role.
Some helicopter pilots had lasers pointed at them from passing fishing vessels, temporarily grounding them for precautionary medical reasons. Was this startled fishermen reacting to the unexpected? Or was it the sort of coordinated harassment more suggestive of China’s maritime militia? It’s hard to say for sure, but similar incidents have occurred in the western Pacific.
Since its first outing in 2017, IPE has become established as Australia’s roving vehicle for regional defence engagement, though it more closely resembles a set of separate port-based engagements than a rolling exercise at sea. The aim is to shape Australia’s strategic environment, with a heavy emphasis on defence diplomacy, to strengthen relations. Although delivered by a naval task group, the joint aspect of IPE 19 was emphasised by the fact that it was led by an air commodore.
Although IPE 19 was primarily focused on South Asia, for me this was an opportunity to experience a naval transit of the South China Sea (SCS), in the hope of demystifying that most commented-upon body of water. I’m grateful to the RAN for making that possible.
While the transparency and openness I experienced onboard was impressive, the SCS remains something of an enigma. (end of excerpt)
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