Surprise Chinese Naval Visit Unsettles Sydney

On June 3, three Chinese warships -- a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy frigate, the Xuchang, a supply ship and an amphibious craft with a brigade of PLA marines aboard made an apparent surprise visit to Sydney Harbor. Local media reports said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejilian had no idea of the arrival of the vessels until they steamed in.

Apparently the Chinese naval contingent was on anti-pirate operations in the Gulf of Aden before stopping at the Australian Naval Base on Garden Island for four days. A Defense Department spokesperson confirmed that the task force is conducting a “routine port visit” that is expected to end on June 7.

According to the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison the Chinese goodwill visit reciprocates a visit by a Royal Australian Navy ship which called at the Qingdao port last April. Morrison further stated that the visit of the Chinese ships had long been planned, even though no public announcement prior to the visit was made.

However the unannounced visit by the Chinese flotilla has caused apprehension to ripple through the media, both over concerns about naval protocol and because the breach of manners exemplifies rising Chinese naval strength – and arrogance -- in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There have been persistent reports of Chinese Naval vessels shadowing Australian naval vessels in the South China Sea recently. The national broadcaster ABC also claimed that the Chinese visit came as a complete surprise.

Australian National University Professor and defense expert Rory Medcalf, according to Business Insider Australia, said he was unconvinced by Australian government efforts to reassure the public that the Chinese visit was planned. Medcalf went on to say that the Chinese visit was part of an effort by the Chinese to make a serious show of presence in the South Pacific and that there is much more to the story.

Debate about Chinese influence in Australia has been going on for some time now. However, this debate is going on after the horse has already bolted away from the cart. China through Confucius Institutes located at several Australian Universities already yield some influence within university campuses. China already controls important strategic pieces of Australian infrastructure like the Darwin Port. China already has strong equity stakes in Australia’s mining and agriculture. It has also long been acknowledged that there are spies within the large Chinese population living in Australia.

China has developed great influence with Australia’s Pacific neighbors through its ‘infrastructure and debt’ strategy, unflatteringly referred to as debt traps. China has got away with building multiple scientific research bases on Australian Antarctic Territory, without even a whimper of protest from the Australian government.

It’s highly questionable how much effort the Australian government is really making to stem the increasing tide of influence China is gaining. A large number of Australian politicians upon their parliamentary retirements end up working as consultants to corporations closely aligned with either the Chinese Communist Party or the government.

There is a major question of loyalty to the nation that has to be resolved. Basing loyalty on citizenship doesn’t work here. With the election of the first Chinese-born (Hong Kong) Australian to parliament in the recent federal election, this question of loyalty must be much more deeply examined. A Chinese born MP Yang Jian in New Zealand has been accused of being a spy. It’s just a matter of time before the same type of scandal happens in Australia.

Loyalty can never be proven until it’s too late.

China doesn’t view sovereignty in the same way other nations do. China sees the importance of potential rather than actual influence and physical presence. China’s interests are not ideological, not political, not about control of territory, but rather about commence, acquiring technology and gaining secure supply of strategic items. Thus China’s strategy is not completely a military one. Chinese strategy is about business, economics, seeking technology, all requiring non-military tools.

This is why Australia’s defence strategy has completely failed at holding back Chinese influence. Australia’s strategy was militarily based while China uses tools like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Confucius Institutes, and its most powerful tool, its expatriate nationals living in Australia.

The invasion of Australia started just after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, when former Prime Minister Bob Hawke allowed 50,000 Chinese nationals living in Australia to stay permanently. Ironically the visit of the three Chinese naval ships this week occurred on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The quiet invasion is continuing.

Murray Hunter is a development specialist based in Southeast Asia and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.