When 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.