APDR NewsletterWhen an ANZAC frigate such as HMAS Parramatta deploys to the South China Sea for some type of freedom of navigation exercise it probably costs the Australian taxpayer around $4 million per day to do so.  A larger Hobart class Air Warfare Destroyer, with a bigger crew and more complex systems and greater fuel burn is much more than that.  To do the same sort of thing with a P8-A maritime patrol aircraft would not leave much change from half a million dollars per day.

The Department of Defence used to provide figures for the daily operating costs of assets such as ships and aircraft, but it no longer seems to do so with everything lumped in together as an annual operating budget for a particular class of asset.  This latter figure is only part of the story because – as any accountant will tell you – the operating costs, which includes things such as the salaries of the crew, the fuel consumed, and so on – does not factor in the depreciation of the asset caused by wear & tear.

To labour the point, it’s a bit like how the Tax Office calculates the cost of private use of a motor vehicle – it’s a much higher figure than the sum of the annual fuel and maintenance bill.

There are many good reasons for Australian ships and aircraft to be transiting the South China Sea on a regular basis.  They might be going to a joint exercise somewhere, or on a goodwill series of visits.  Less likely, but still possible, is that they are participating in a humanitarian and disaster relief mission in the region.

However, if we are undertaking these deployments just to jab a finger in the eye of China, we might need to have a national conversation about the costs and benefits of doing so. For some reason the ADF – a line echoed by the government –  is refusing to comment on the reason for deployments for “operational reasons.”  The problem with this formula is that if no explanation is offered for the presence of Australian platforms in the sensitive South China Sea then a reasonable conclusion is that they are there as some form of harassment operation.  Spending millions of dollars a day being there just because we can seems inadequate.

Under international law, China’s occupation of various islets in the South China Sea is illegal.  Similarly, China’s slightly ambiguous claims of sovereignty over the region – it’s not clear whether they are just referring to islands or to everything – is illegitimate.  The problem of course is that Beijing takes a different interpretation of the law.  This leads to situations of tension because countries – particularly the US – deliberately sail warships within 12 nautical miles of one of the rocks or islets claimed by China, arguing instead that the object does not belong to anyone and therefore there are no legal restrictions on how close one may sail to it.

Less sensitive, but still relevant, is the practise of sailing warships within another country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, defined as the area out to a distance of 200 nautical miles from a nation’s cost.  China takes that view that if ships such as HMAS Parramatta want to sail through its EEZ it needs to be notified in advance.  Because most countries do not recognise China’s territorial claims they argue that no EEZ exists and they can freely sail warships through the region – but recognising the sensitivity of the issue choose not to.

Some countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia agree with China that they need to be notified in advance if warships plan to transit their EEZs.  The regular practise of the USN – and to a lesser extent the RAN – of using the doctrine of free archipelagic passage to sail wherever they want is a major irritation to them, but which is almost never discussed here.

As the Australian public is learning, China really doesn’t like this behaviour and is starting to push back hard.  The reporting of HMAS Parramatta being shadowed by a Chinese nuclear submarine raises a few questions, quite apart from what the Australian ship is doing there in the first place.  These include – how did the ship know that it was followed by a submarine? How did it know it was nuclear powered? How did it know it was a Chinese submarine and not one from another country?

ANZAC frigates are small and reliable, if ageing, multi-purpose frigates.  They have limited anti-submarine warfare capabilities in the form of an excellent hull mounted sonar from Thales and they also have an embarked MH-60R anti-submarine warfare helicopter.   Unless the submarine was very old and noisy and sailing close to HMAS Paramatta it would not have been detected passively – in other words by just listening for it.

But if the ship had been using its sonar in active mode – pinging the waters searching for a submarine – that would not seem to be a particularly friendly thing to do in waters claimed by China.  If the MH-60R was using its dipping sonar in active mode, that would be even less friendly – and probably in the same category as a Chinese warship shining a laser on a RAAF aircraft.

Because the government is going along with this “operational matters” secrecy propagated by the ADF we will likely never know what has taken place – but given the current general interest in our relations with China it would be helpful to have something more than bland assurances from Defence Minister Richard Marles that all of this is in Australia’s national interest.  The situation could rapidly escalate if there were a collision between a RAN ship and one from the Chinese Navy – or if a submarine thought it was being targeted by an active sonar.

The defining protocol for maritime traffic is UNCLOS – the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.   The United States refuses to sign it – but says it acts according to its principles.  China has signed it but behaves in a way contrary to those same principles.  Australia tries to be pure – we have not only signed it but try an act according to it, with the notable exception of defining our seabed boundary with East Timor.  It’s amazing how quickly principle goes out the window when commercial interests are at stake.

This is a long way of saying that the situation in the South China Sea is complex – and dangerous.  Beijing shows no signs of backing down on its claims and so the region looks set for ongoing tension into the foreseeable future.

Returning to the cost of operating platforms – if a ship such as HMAS Parramatta has been sent to the South China Sea simply to make a political statement, then the total bill for undertaking a mission lasting several weeks will be some tens of millions of dollars.  Is it worth it – especially with lives potentially at risk?  Having purchased a platform, there is also no point leaving it tied up alongside a wharf or parked in a hangar forever – of course they have to be used.  The question becomes one of sensible deployments that are genuinely in Australia’s national interest.

If Australia is taking on the role of Provocateur-In-Chief of China at the same time as we are calling on Beijing to change direction, we seem to be in something of a dilemma.  This not for a moment to say that Australia needs to back down, or go soft, or whatever – it’s more a case of needing an intelligent conversation about what is occurring.  Instead, the government is hiding behind “operational matters”, which sounds similar to the doctrine of secrecy called “on water matters”, which Labor in opposition used to loathe.

One hopes that deployments such as that of HMAS Parramatta are part of a very carefully calibrated national security strategy and not because of the whims of some powerful, anonymous bureaucrats and senior military figures.

APDR Newsletter

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Editor Kym Bergmann at kym.bergmann@venturamedia.net

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


  1. I suggest that you do more research on Maritime law – my understanding is that if the Western Navies & Air Forces didn’t exercise Freedom of Navigation through the contested waters/air space, then after a period of time (20 years, I believe), China would have a legitimate claim to the Spratly Islands & South China sea, effectively squatters rights.

    We have to keep funding these operations to ensure that China does not have a legal right to deny other countries access to the SCS.

  2. Wow – I am utterly gobsmacked by the premise of your article.

    You appear to have a great deal of sympathy for the CCP/PRC, which, if you may have forgotten, is a tyrannical state guided by Marxist principles. They are no friends of democratic states or principles and they do not compromise.

    Five years ago, an Arbitral Tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention delivered a unanimous and enduring decision firmly rejecting the PRC’s expansive South China Sea maritime claims as having no basis in international law.

    The SCS matter has been determined and the CCP/PRC lost. If you want to be a productive member of the international community that means you accept the rulings of its institutions. It is not a matter of interpretation, as you say, it is out and out belligerence that is in lock-step with CCP doctrine. It is akin to an Australian High Court ruling against one party who rejects the court’s final verdict.

    How you can characterise Australia’s presence in the SCS as “harassment”, in view of the facts (and that Australia as a member of the international community and the South East Asian community is openly rejecting the PRC’s spurious claims), is absolutely laughable. I am surprised you can genuinely think this let alone publish such thoughts.

    • If you read what I wrote, I did my best to explain the complexity of the situation. Among the points were that it’s not just China that takes the view that warships need to provide advanced notification when travelling through their EEZs, but also Indonesia and Malaysia. I also wrote that under international law China’s seizure of various outcrops in the South China Sea is illegal and that their broader claims (the 9 dotted lines) are illegitimate – can’t be much clearer than that.

      The issue becomes one how best to manage the situation and if you believe that Australia’s responses are part of a carefully considered, thought out strategy that’s fine. I don’t see any particular evidence of that – plus hiding behind not commenting on “operational matters” doesn’t cut it. If HMAS Parramatta was on the way to an exercise, why not just say so?

      It also seems worth pointing out for the benefit of people who don’t follow these things particularly closely that there is a financial cost involved in all of this, which is rarely – if ever – mentioned.

  3. I have read APDR and before when it was was ADR for over 45 years. I cannot believe what the magazine has evolved into. Kym I am so disappointed in your article ! You constantly promote European defence companies and projects. Criticise when we buy US defence capabilities even when they are our major defence partner and were the only country that actually stood up for Australia when we were threatened i WW2. The impression I get from APDR at the moment is let’s just buy European defence equipment including a coastal sub and let’s limit our Defence posture to our shore line. So disappointed so sad.

    • Thanks Frank – and I’m sorry you feel that way. I have absolutely no problem with the vast majority of purchases from the US: F-35, Super Hornets; Aegis; various guided weapons and so on. What I object to is a reflexive belief that US equipment is always better when it manifestly is not – such as providing air-to-air refuelling capability. As readers are aware, I’m also opposed to spending an extra +$6 billion on the unnecessary replacement of the Tiger ARH.

      • Re Tiger… why not keep the Tigers for use at sea on the LHDs, and acquire the Apaches to bolster fire and manouvre on land? We are getting Apache, its very clear, but Tiger can still be a useful capability. With a much more adverse threat environment, I think there is a greater case for a more mobile land force with greater punch, even if that costs more money.

    • I suggest you check your history. The US entered WW2 only after it was directly attacked at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 – long after Australia was threatened by the downward progress of the Japanese. The US did not enter the war to protect Australia. They used us as a base for their war on Japan. We just happened to have a common enemy. Since then, the US has a long and unhappy history of deserting its allies, most recently by taking the export markets to China that we lost after Morrison was suckered by Trump into verbally abusing China.

  4. Is it worth spending $4M a day or more in deterrence? If you had asked the same question a couple of years ago to Germany or some of the other ‘caught unawares’ countries in Europe about doing the same to deter Russia their answer would have been, “no”. Now they wish they had done more to be prepared.

    Interesting partial position of the geopolitical situation. A one page editorial to cover such a complex issue only leads to misinformation.

    • You raise a fair point – and as I have responded to other criticisms the reaction of many readers might be different if the headline had read “Is it worth $4 million a day to stand up to China?”

  5. HMAS Parramatta, and indeed all other RAN vessels engaged in Op Gateway transits, are sailing in international waters as recognized under international law. There is nothing provocative about this. We are not undertaking harassment of China. That’s it..

    I’m surprised you have written this piece, especially after a PLAAF J-16 flew a dangerous and provocative intercept of a RAAF P-8A in international airspace over international waters.

    Op Gateway is about maintaining the rule of international law on the high seas. If China chooses to ignore that law – or to violate it – we should not accommodate their actions. Its vital that Australia not give an inch to Chinese coercion, and your piece implies we should be more nuanced in how we undertake legitimate maritime transits in international waters to alleviate Chinese concerns. That would be well received in Beijing.

    • Thanks Malcolm – in general, I happen to agree with you. But I think that’s it’s important to understand that there can be other perspectives on the matter – and differences of opinion on the best way to handle a complex situation. Perhaps I should have spent more time explaining in detail that Indonesia and Malaysia also support China’s policy of warships needing permission in advance – or at least providing notification – when travelling through another country’s EEZ.

      I suspect the negative reaction of a number of readers would be different if the headline had read: “Is it worth $4 million a day to stand up to China?”

      As many people might have gathered by now, I’m particularly irritated by this no comment attitude of Defence based on “operational matters”. I think that’s ridiculous. If HMAS Parramatta was participating in some form of regional exercise, just say so. Even the USN supplies more information about their deployments.

  6. While accepting your right to your views I’m of the opinion that these missions are necessary to enforce the UNCLOS. China isn’t the slightest bit interested in upholding any Laws that don’t fit what they want at the time. It’s time to start acting as opposed to reacting to CCPs coercion and tactics. Remember the old adage,”The only thing necessary for Evil to Triumph is for Good men to do nothing”.

  7. If the goal here is to illuminate multiple perspectives on an issue then the opportunity may be to double down with a another piece expanding on the perspectives of our neighbours. In particular how they might perceive our behaviour and how this may lead to miscalculation and escalation. We naturally see ourselves as the benevolent party. To read a headline about us “harassing” was a little confronting and connecting that to cost per day leads in to a different space of platform cost and transparency. Each of these points is quite involved, perhaps this is a three part series to fully expand on each point. I read “Harass” and my brain just stopped and said “no”. If there’s weight in your comments, I missed it by being preoccupied with the tile.

  8. Is it worth the cost? I think it absolutely is.
    Whether we like it or not, there is tension in our part of the world. The SCS is in our part of the world despite being several thousand kilometres away, and everyone knows a significant amount of our trade depends on an open SCS.
    If we don’t make the most of our capabilities and work with others to ensure that it stays open and free of tension/influence from more domineering nations, then we risk loosing the access that we and a number of other nations have.
    Regarding operations of the ADF in the area, I can see both sides of the situation. On one hand we have the open book reporting on everything or nearly everything that the ADF does. From a transparency point of view, we as tax payers etc are informed.
    On the other hand, by having a lot of this out in the open we also provide any potential adversary with an advantage. They get more of an insight in to what we are doing and how we go about it. All things that can be used in any future conflict. By protecting that info, it helps limit what the other side can find out. Its not perfect and probably never will be.
    If an ADF asset is on the way to an exercise in another part of the world, it doesn’t mean that it may not have been tasked with several other activities along the way. Some of which may be far more sensitive. You just have to look back to the Oberon sub operations that were undertaken in Asian waters in great secrecy back in the cold war. They gathered a great deal of information that could have been critical of things ever heated up. If sub deployments or exercises in that part of the world had ever been advertised, then it would’ve made those undesirable yet very necessary missions even more risky.
    While it’s not perfect, sometimes it’s just necessary to maintain the edge. As someone who is very interested in all things military and defence etc, I’d love to know everything about what we do and what the ADF is capable of, but I realise that what I don’t know, the other side has less of a chance of knowing as well.
    If we have these capabilities, let’s use them in a measured way to ensure that what we take for granted is maintained. The world is far from a free and peaceful place, despite what the bulk of the population would like to believe.

    • Thanks for that detailed contribution to the discussion. I agree with most of your points and as I tried to describe in the article – obviously not very well – I’m not suggesting that we change policy and ignore China but rather that we have a slightly more informed discussion about the methods being employed and their objectives. I agree totally with your concluding sentiments.

      Let me put it this way: I’m perfectly entitled to sit on the pavement outside the house of a neighbour and start taking notes and photographing them every time the come and go – but after a while those neighbours would probably be fairly miffed and would want to know what I was doing and why, even though there is no law that I’m aware of preventing me. Unless I could provide a very good reason for doing so they would probably want me to stop – and after a while might consider some counter moves of their own. I have no problem with the RAN and RAAF transiting the South China Sea as frequently as they wish on their way to exercises and so on since they are lawfully entitled to do just that. My point was that if instead we are running missions specifically designed to rile up the Chinese with no other justification, maybe those sorts of things need a bit of cost-benefit analysis.

  9. Thanks for a timely and thoughtful piece Kym. You have touched a raw nerve with some of your “my country right or wrong” readers who dismiss out of hand any suggestion that we could ever be provocative on behalf of the US in our mutual dealings with China.

    Can we go back a few months to mid-May when a Chinese “warship with intelligence-gathering capacity” was reported to have been “hugging the coastline” of WA “as far south as Exmouth”? For having merely entered our Exclusive Economic Zone, then Defence Minister Peter Dutton railed against what he called “an act of aggression”.

    If we don’t want Chinese warships off the WA coast, why should the Chinese be welcoming of our armed forces regularly patrolling the South China Seas? And, as you point out, we are spending hospital beds and classrooms to do this.

    Thank you for making us think.

  10. Sometimes a Country or person MUST simply do what’s RIGHT regardless of the cost. We should not just bend over for anyone and definately NOT be ruled by the almighty dollar (imo). It’s asy to see EXACTLY what happens when appeasement is exercised by simply looking at 20th century history.
    If the Pacific was your mother would you stand by and let ANYONE do as they please without doing anything?
    I wouldn’t tell a journalist ANYTHING about ANYTHING especially where Operational Security is involved. The meeja has leaked so much over the years that they have become nothing more than an instrument for the dissamination of personal agenda – depending on WHO’s paying the bills.

    • OK. But I’m interested on your views about journalists. When have Australian journalists leaked details of a sensitive operation? I’m not aware of a single one so please feel free to share 2 or 3 examples

      • Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “leaked”. I can’t imagine anyone who’d publish anything that puts OPSEC in danger deliberately. I mean that could put people in actual danger.
        The truth, however, sometimes doesn’t seem to rate highly on the requirement list of for publication. Classic example from the 70’s was when the NSW paper (Telegraph, not sure) said that HMAS Melbourne had rammed the Sydney ferry ‘South Steyne’ in Sydney Harbour. Now THAT was incredible as we were ANCHORED at Alpha buoy with COLD BOILERS at the time.
        Yes that was a long time ago but a valid example and I certainly don’t mean to imply ALL journoes tell porkies but THAT’s the default position I take until I know otherwise.
        btw APDR is an excellent publication and I have seen nothing but good, factual reporting with obviously well thought out opinions.
        My comment was badly expressed in that I used OPSEC when I should have been more general. Whilst I agree with FOI I still have difficulty with the actual need for people to be told certain details. The “need to know” should only apply to those who really do “need to know”.
        Untruths can, did and do effect the morale of soldiers, sailors and airmen and they need to be considered before stories are published.
        I know this is “off topic” here but I just needed to “vent” I guess. I truly apreciate YOUR work.

        …. this article was totally relavent at this time and asked legitimate questions. It was the following criticism that got up my nose – “For some reason the ADF – a line echoed by the government – is refusing to comment on the reason for deployments for “operational reasons.” “and I reacted without much thought. I apologise for that.


        • Thanks for that, and I appreciate that extra detail and clarification. It has been an ongoing mystery to me and most of my colleagues why many people in the ADF have an extremely negative attitude towards the Australian media when the vast majority of us are just trying to do our jobs and are basically friendly, curious writers – not monsters. In my own dealings I have found that the US is the best – very open and supportive. After that comes Sweden, France, the UK, and Germany. I regret to say – very unpatriotically – that Australia is a distant last with people from Defence and the ADF preferring to hide in a broom cupboard rather than cross paths with a journalist, almost literally. The climate here has never been particularly good but if I had to guess it has been made far worse by two fairly recent developments: 1) While he was the Minister, Peter Dutton’s outrageous ban on anyone in Defence / ADF granting interviews to journalists – there was no justification for that; and 2) the Brereton report. As far as I’m aware, the coverage of Brereton has been fair – but maybe there are people in the hierarchy who feel a deep sense of shame for what happened, but rather than confront it prefer to avoid any mention of the issue whatsoever. Just a theory.

          Thanks again – it’s very helpful to have more pieces to the puzzle.

  11. I don’t see any issue notifying a country when transmitting their EEZ but the South China sea is not their EEZ so no need to inform them so vastly different to what Malaysia and Indonesia ask for.

    Again same applies to a Chinese ship transiting 12 km from the Australia coast within our EEZ vs an Australian Ship sailing over 1000 km from the actual Chinese coast. Chalk and cheese comparison


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