South China Sea: Australia’s live fire exercise with China’s navy could be ‘PR disaster’, expert warns
The Defence Minister and Defence chief have played down the significance of the long-planned activity, despite growing diplomatic tensions in the region, but a leading East Asian security expert has warned it could be a “PR disaster” for Australia.
For the past two days HMAS Stuart and HMAS Arunta have been spending time in the Chinese port of Zhanjiang.
The port is home to the Chinese Navy’s southern fleet of warships, which are responsible for patrolling waters including the disputed South China Sea region.
The live fire exercise comes almost a week since the United States sent a warship through the area to assert “freedom of navigation”.
“It’s a chance to work with regional navies and show transparency and capability in what we do. It’s what we do with a lot of regional navies,” Defence Force head Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin said.
Air Chief Marshal Binskin denied the long-planned activity had been a difficult balancing act for Australia.
“No, it’s part of the relationship we have with a lot of the regional navies in the development between the defence forces. So, we shouldn’t make it more than what it actually is,” he said.
But director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Euan Graham, sees it differently.
“Australia is proud of its close relationship with the Chinese Navy — there aren’t many that are given the ability to operate this closely,” he said.
“The question has to be the current timing and whether this is sending a mixed signal with America just having launched its Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea.”
Australia is believed to be the only Western military to conduct “live fire” exercises alongside the Chinese, with HMAS Warramunga first doing so in 2010.
But Dr Graham said he would have preferred the live fire drill to be cancelled because he fears China will use it for propaganda purposes.
“I think that possibility is open given there is a live fire component to the exercise,” he said.
“Now I don’t want to over-emphasise that.
“I think the exercise in question is involving small arms, but it’s really the really the symbolism that counts and of course in China’s system there is a tendency to use state media for propaganda purposes and you could say this is a gift-wrapped opportunity given the timing.”
Dr Graham also backed a call by former foreign minister Gareth Evans for Australia to send a warship to assert Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea.
“I think the value of Australia demonstrating its own concerns lies in doing it independently because the reverse image problem that Australia has is not wanting to [be] perceived to be seen as riding on Uncle Sam’s coat tails,” he said.
“So doing something independently at a time of its own choosing but also non-provocatively and in a way that is not in the full glare of media publicity.”