The waters off the coast of Australia are getting crowded as Talisman Sabre 2019, a biennial, bilateral U.S.-Australia set of exercises with participation from the Japanese and Canadian navies this year, gets underway.
Over the weekend, Australian media reported that the country’s Defense Force is monitoring the activity of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Type 815 auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) vessel—a warship specialized for at-sea surveillance and reconnaissance.
The Type 815, also known as the Dongdiao-class, has played the role of eavesdropper before. In fact, in 2018, a Type 815 AGI monitored the multilateral Rim of the Pacific exercise. The vessel monitored the U.S.-led exercise—the largest multilateral naval drill in the world—even after the PLAN was specifically disinvited by the United States after Washington criticized China’s militarization of the South China Sea.
In 2017, a Type 815 AGI monitored the Talisman Sabre exercises between the United States and Australia too. That same month, a Type 815 AGI observed a U.S. missile defense test off the coast of Alaska. For Canberra and Washington, even while the prospect of exercising under the watchful eye of the PLAN might be uneasy, there’s little to be done about it.
Lieutenant General Greg Bilton, the chief of defense joint operations of the Australian Defense Force, speaking at the launch of Talisman Sabre 2019 in Brisbane, said as much: “It is international waters, they have the right to sail there.”
Bilton suggested Australia would take some action. “I’m not going to go into operational details, but we’ll just take appropriate actions in regards to that vessel,” he said. “It’s a vessel that collects information, so it’s not a great threat but we’ll take appropriate action.”
The core problem for Canberra and Washington remains Beijing’s nonreciprocity. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows for military surveillance activity to be carried out by warships in a country’s exclusive economic zone. While coastal states possess certain rights to exclude others from economic activities in these waters, they cannot legally bar free navigation, including military navigation.
China’s interpretation of these principles has been different in its near seas, with Beijing adopting a basic approach of “international law for thee, but not for me.” Chinese authorities regularly protest nonthreatening passage by U.S. warships—and warships of U.S. allies and partners—not only in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, but even in uncontested waters off the Chinese coast.
China’s basic position on military surveillance activities in its EEZ is that they are impermissible, even if UNCLOS, which Beijing has ratified, provides for such activities.
As I wrote in these pages in 2017, the last time a Type 815 AGI showed up to monitor Talisman Sabre, while the United States and its partners can seek to underscore Beijing’s double standards by continuing to allow surveillance by Chinese warships in their own EEZs, doing so is unlikely to deter such surveillance or win reciprocal rights in international waters off China’s coast.