There were two little kids playing in their own private sandbox. Everything was going fine despite some residual resentments. On one side because of a spat when they first met and on the other a touch of the “I am better than you’s.”
They began a yelling match and were about to start throwing things at each other. That was when one of the adults stepped in with a loud “AHEM!”
So it has been with Australia’s “little” argument with Indonesia.
China has decided that it cannot afford to have two of its major raw material suppliers involved in a potentially damaging row between themselves. So it sent a fleet of three vessels to make a quiet statement that other eyes are watching.
“A three-ship Chinese navy squadron has concluded exercises in the Indian Ocean and sailed on to the western Pacific, showing off the growing reach of the country’s seagoing forces at a time of sharpening territorial disputes in regional waters.”
This is an event which has been noticed by Indian, Pakistani, The US, Japan and Europe. There seem to be only two countries which have ignored the whole thing. The main stream media in Australia and Indonesia has chosen to say nothing.
The only Australian mention I have been able to find was on the Lowy Institute website. We are already in a lose-lose situation with our military hands held by the Americans and our mercantile hands held by the Chinese. The impossible situation I postulated in that post is closer than ever before.
Lowy posted, Australia’s strategic environment changed a week ago, even if much of our media did not notice. Last weekend, a Chinese taskforce of three warships steamed south through the Sunda Strait to conduct combat simulations and other exercises in the Indian Ocean, somewhere between Indonesia and Christmas Island. The vessels, two destroyers and an advanced 20,000-ton amphibious ship capable of carrying some hundreds of marines (pictured), then skirted the southern edge of Java before heading north through the Lombok and Makassar Straits and into the Pacific.
There was a message in this short visit. A message loud and clear to the Australian government as our surveillance aircraft would have been bound to see the Chinese ships. This is a warning by China that they are able as the article says “To project power”. With hundreds of marines and support from aircraft and surface ships. The warning is we know what you are about and we are going to overtly show you what we are about. Don’t mess with us.
This also highlights the poor decision some time ago to retire the F111 in favour of the Super hornet and waiting for the new dud F35 fighters. The trouble with the Super hornet is that their range is not large enough to get there and back and have to refuel in the air. That then is again a problem as the tanker aircraft are vulnerable and so take up protection assets we don’t have.
THE WIDER PERSPECTIVE
The Chinese are a very economical people. Rarely do they do something with only a single objective in mind. Here is a view of this event from The Diplomat which is a major international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region.
The task force consisted of the Changbaishan–China’s largest amphibious landing ship–and two destroyers–the Wuhan and Haikou. According to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, the ships carried out counter-piracy, search and rescue, and damage control drills. The ships eventually left the Indian Ocean to continue their drills in the Western Pacific Ocean. The Changbaishan is one of the more advanced ships in the PLAN’s fleet and is capable of launching helicopters and amphibious landing craft. China has conducted naval drills in the Indian Ocean in the past but has generally focused on restricting these to its western waters, by the Gulf of Aden. For example, an exercise in August 2013 saw the U.S. and Chinese navies jointly practice counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden which is generally a hot region for pirates based off the Horn of Africa. These exercises by contrast are potentially far more provocative for India, Australia, and ASEAN states (even though Southeast Asia isn’t bereft of pirates by any means). For India, a Chinese approach in the eastern Indian Ocean raises anxieties about the reach of China’s navy. India regards the eastern Indian Ocean–the space between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Sumatra–as its domain. Any Chinese exercises in this area, particularly combat simulations, will not be taken lightly by New Delhi. Australia is generally content to accept the Indonesian archipelago as a comfortable buffer zone from the busy sea lanes of the South China Sea. By way of this exercise, China demonstrates an operational ability in Australia’s northern waters which could have implications for Australia in the future. Rory Medcalf of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank, notes that “the precise strategic implications of the Chinese navy’s newly-demonstrated ability to operate in Australia’s northern approaches are open to debate.” For China, the exercises make perfect sense in its bid to field a blue-water navy capable of operating outside China’s proximate waters. Medcalf notes that while these exercises will surely spook some observers in the region, there is “nothing illegal or fundamentally hostile about what the Chinese navy has just demonstrated.”
Meanwhile, Japan Focus, in 2010, published the following in an article on Chinese naval strength and ambitions.
Perhaps we are about to live in those fabled “Interesting Times”.