A Chinese spy ship has again entered Australian waters to monitor the nation's largest international war games. And it's using the same laws challenging Beijing's claims to the South China Sea to do so.
The Australian Defence Department says the Type 815 intelligence vessel Tianwangxing (Uranus) was shadowed by the patrol boat HMAS Childers and surveillance aircraft as it approached Queensland. It is expected to arrive off the coast on Friday.
It's here to eavesdrop on the 2021 Talisman Sabre war games – a large-scale simulated amphibious assault operation involving the United States, Japan, Canada, South Korea, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Radio 2SM this morning that he was "very wary" of the ship's presence.
"We wouldn't be watching them if we weren't. Of course we're watching them. And they're watching us. The law of the sea says we can be up in the South China Sea. And so we simply say that we think the same tolerances and the same appreciation of those international laws should apply."
Defence Minister Peter Dutton confirmed the ship's arrival overnight. "We are aware that the People's Liberation Army (Navy) general intelligence ship Tianwangxing is approaching Australia's east coast via the Torres Strait," he said.
"We have been monitoring its approach to Australia for several days as part of Australia's broader surveillance effort."
The electronic surveillance ship will likely follow the same pattern as previous years. It will motor along Australia's 22km territorial boundary, well within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), for the next fortnight.
It's entirely within its rights to do so. It's not conducting economic activity, such as fishing. And its presence is permitted under the same international laws as those being enforced by Australia in the South China Sea.
"The vessel was operating lawfully in international waters," Australia's Defence Department states.
Warships from Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States have just completed high-intensity "warfighting" simulations off New South Wales as part of Exercise Pacific Vanguard.
It was the first time the multinational exercise was conducted off Australia. It's typically held near the mid-Pacific island of Guam.
"By continuing to work with like-minded partner forces, Navy contributes to the stability that underpins prosperity in the Indo-Pacific," said the commanding officer of the Australian air-warfare destroyer HMAS Brisbane.
Many of these ships are going on to participate in Talisman Sabre 2021 (TS21).
HMAS Canberra and HMAS Choules will be at the heart of this force, deploying troops and tanks on a simulated contested beachhead.
"The land component of TS21 will focus on a combined Australian-US effort to close with and destroy an enemy force that has lodged and is defending key terrain," a Defence Department statement reads.
The land assault will include amphibious and maritime deployment along with air support. It will all be co-ordinated by the ADF's Deployable Joint Force Headquarters.
"Overall, these exercises provide an outstanding opportunity to develop broader interoperability with friends, partners and allies within the region and further afield," says Major General Jake Ellwood.
That's what makes the event so attractive to Beijing.
Exactly how the multinational force cooperates and coordinates is something the People's Liberation Army seeks to understand. And potentially exploit.
From Beijing with love
This is the second time the spy ship PLAN Tianwangxing has observed the fortnight-long Talisman Sabre exercise. It first appeared in 2019. In 2017, the PLAN Haiwangxing (Neptune) initiated the task.
Dutton said overnight that Australia "respects the right of all states to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and airspace, just as we expect others to respect our right to do the same".
Which is why Beijing says allegations of spying are intended "to hype the 'China threat' theory".
"Since the Australian military acknowledges the Chinese ship has the right to sail in international waters, why would they hype the so-called 'spying' concerns?" says People's Liberation Army Naval Military Studies Research Institute research fellow Zhang Junshe.
He added such "irresponsible comments" about China's "normal naval activities" served only to inflame tensions.
But Beijing has been busy "hyping" the "normal naval activities" in its own backyard.
It has threatened to sink Australian warships conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in Southeast Asia. It accuses the US of being a "security risk maker in the South China Sea" for doing the same.
Cold War echos
Watching the amphibious assault so closely could benefit China's own amphibious assault operations. But it will also enable any weak links to be identified for potential exploitation.
It's nothing new.
"For nearly 40 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union, every naval operation or exercise was conducted in the expectation that it would be monitored by intelligence gatherers," retired Rear Admiral James Goldrick wrote for the Lowy Institute.
But the Chinese ship's presence is a clear indication of a new "chill" in international relations.
The PLAN Tianwangxing will be recording every electronic emission from the arena for later analysis. They will all be collected and analysed to understand the methods and capabilities behind them.
Battlefield networking is a modern defence buzzword.
Linking the sensors on aircraft such as the F-35 stealth fighter with those on destroyers and ground facilities has proven to be a game-changing technological advance.
"The problem is that such systems require long-range communications – and long-range communications can often be monitored," Goldrick said. "Big Brother is out there. Intelligence gatherers have a much greater capacity to hear and understand."
But it isn't all bad, he said.
Such operations enhance mutual understanding. And even respect.
"We may never see a Chinese intelligence gatherer included in the daily helicopter delivery of fresh bread that a British aircraft carrier made to its escorts, as legend tells HMS Ark Royal did to its Soviet 'tail' in the 1970s, but good manners at sea help develop the right atmosphere."