It will not look like much of a match — or a showdown for that matter — but when Australia’s largest warship HMAS Adelaide arrives at the Fijian port of Suva today, it will have an interesting neighbour.
- Chinese fishing boat believed to be carrying wide range of surveillance equipment
- Fiji tipped off Australian Navy about Chinese spy ship expected to dock next to HMAS Adelaide
- China has a strong commercial and military presence in the South Pacific
The Royal Australian Navy, tipped off by Fijian officials, is expecting a Chinese “fishing vessel” to also dock, and nestle alongside the new Canberra-class landing helicopter dock.
However this Chinese fishing boat is tasked with pursuing a very different catch.
Beneath its bow is believed to be a whole gamut of surveillance equipment — it is also a spy ship intent on marine mischief, camouflaged to look like its more interested in tuna, marlin and dogfish.
Australia’s Navy, like every navy around the world, is well-versed in these sorts of nautical games.
“If you’re in the Navy you presume that anytime that a fishing vessel or even merchant fleets of nations like China are around that they may have a dual purpose”, said ANU academic and retired Australian Naval Commodore Richard Menhinick.
“You just presume that that they may well be tasked by government for other activities.”
China’s looking for South Pacific foothold
Chinese presence — both commercial and military — is common in the South Pacific.
Beijing sees economic opportunity in the region and economic imperatives commonly herald other strategic interests.
Agriculture and aquaculture projects in Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and other Pacific nations have been given significant help by the Chinese over the years, as have roads, ports and other infrastructure.
When you have more than 1.3 billion people back home to feed, finding secure food supplies are critical.
As China grows, Mr Menhinick said it was not surprising that the nation’s presence in the Pacific was also increasing.
“China’s a rising power… economic power’s always led and the military’s followed, and the Chinese economic interest in the south-west Pacific has increased substantially over the last fifteen year,” he said.
But Australia and its strategic partners are anxious China does not use its presence to jeopardise regional structures — political, economic and diplomatic.
Now a visiting US General, has given the strongest public indication yet that his nation would like Australia to join in naval and air patrols to challenge Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
Asked whether joint American-Australian patrols would be welcomed by America, the commander of US Marines in the Pacific, Lieutenant General David Berger gave an enthusiastic response.
“Obviously that’s Australia’s decision, would we welcome that? Absolutely yes,” Lt Gen Berger said.