A Chinese frigate, auxiliary replenishment ship, and an amphibious vessel with 700 sailors docked in Sydney, Australia, for an unannounced visit on Monday amid rising anxieties about a rising China in the Indo-Pacific, according to Shanghai Morning Post.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was on a diplomatic trip at the time, in the Solomon Islands, a critical region in the South Pacific that China is trying to win over.
"It may have been a surprise to others, but it certainly wasn't a surprise to the government," Morrison told reporters in Solomon's capital Honiara. "We have known about that for some time."
Morrison called the port call a "reciprocal visit because Australian naval vessels have visited China."
"They were returning after a counter drug trafficking operation in the Middle East," he added.
There was no announcement, and a relatively muted welcome, as three Chinese warships entered Sydney Harbour this morning. Officially, it's a friendly visit, strengthening ties between our two navies. #7NEWS pic.twitter.com/w8gqwIj51G— 7NEWS Brisbane (@7NewsBrisbane) June 3, 2019
The visit caught many social media users and academics off guard, with some questioning the port call's timing and why the government failed to give its citizens advance notice.
"The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy visit might have been intended as an act of diplomacy, but it's turning into a public relations disaster for China," said John Fitzgerald, a China scholar at Swinburne University in Melbourne.
With closer examination, the vessels appeared to be the Kunlun Shan, an amphibious landing ship; the Luoma Lake, a replenishment ship; and the Xuchang, a modern frigate that is outfitted with advanced missile systems.
Rory Medcalf, the head of Australian National University's National Security College, tweeted that Beijing is making a serious statement by docking its warships in Sydney.
There was no big welcome as three Chinese warships entered Sydney Harbour today. It's meant to be a friendly visit strengthening ties between our two navies, but recent tension in the South China Sea meant the arrival was short on fanfare. @alexhart7 #7NEWS pic.twitter.com/KQp12bPsET— 7NEWS Melbourne (@7NewsMelbourne) June 3, 2019
Medcalf said historical data shows Chinese military port calls usually involve one vessel, and Sydney isn't a convenient stopover for vessels returning from the Gulf of Aden.
"Chinese naval visits to Australia have more typically been a lone frigate, not a task group with an amphibious assault ship and 700 personnel," tweeted Medcalf.
"Sydney is hardly a convenient stopover on their way home from the Gulf of Aden. What's the story here?" he tweeted again.
"This looks like a serious show of presence in the South Pacific," he said in another tweet.
John Blaxland, a professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, said: "The Australian Government's Pacific reset follows a period of some disengagement by Australia and has been, in part at least, triggered by China's renewed interest in the Pacific – notably the remaining microstates that continue to support Taiwan."
The port call comes about a week after Australian Navy helicopter pilots were hit by lasers while exercising in the South China Sea.
Australia is determined to be a significant player in the Indo-Pacific region, has recently expanded foreign policy and defense strategy with a greater push to maritime defense and security.
But as shown earlier this week, Australia has to contend with a rising China and has to make a tough decision soon or later that if it wants to continue challenging China in the Indo-Pacific region, it might risk a shooting war down the road.