A New Zealand frigate was confronted in a sensitive part of the South China Sea by Chinese navy warships demanding details of its passage, a Stuff Circuit investigation has revealed.
HMNZS Te Mana was transiting through the Spratly Islands when two People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigates, a helicopter and four other vessels came within 463 metres of the 3500-tonne warship, in an act described by a security expert as possibly “sending a message” about changes to defence policy.
The Spratly Islands are a disputed archipelago over which China claims majority sovereignty, and where it has established military structures, but the strategic location is also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Within a week of the incident involving Te Mana, a Chinese warship almost collided with a US guided missile destroyer in the same area, according to reports and photos published by CNN at the time.
In response to questions by Stuff Circuit, the NZ Defence Force has confirmed details of the 2018 encounter. The revelations come at a time of renewed provocation by China against military vessels in the South China Sea, including an ‘’unsafe’’ manoeuvre by a Chinese ship that crossed over the path of a United States destroyer on 3 June 2023.
USS Chung-Hoon and a Canadian frigate were carrying out a so-called ‘’freedom of navigation’’ transit of the strait between Taiwan and mainland China when the PLAN guided-missile destroyer crossed the Chung-Hoon’s bow at around 137 metres.
Defence Minister Andrew Little, who attended a major security summit alongside the US and China in Singapore in early June, said the Te Mana incident was not in the same category as the ‘’unprofessional intervention’’ of the Chung-Hoon.
“[The contact with Te Mana] hasn’t been described as unprofessional. [China] clearly take the view that they have a right to do what they do in that area and to question others about what they’re doing in the area.”
Defence Force Chief of Staff Air Commodore AJ Woods said Te Mana was in international waters transiting the Spratlys on the way to a port in Ho CHi Minh City, Vietnam, as part of Operation Crucible, a five month deployment, when it was contacted by the PLAN.
Te Mana was asked for identification, pennant number and “passage intentions’’ via VHF radio “throughout the transit’’ from September 21 to 23, 2018, according to an account released to Stuff Circuit under the Official Information Act.
Stuff Circuit has established that the flotilla that confronted Te Mana included a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy frigate, the FFG-572 Hengshui, which called for identifying information, along with a second frigate, FFG-577 Huanggang, a helicopter, a Chinese Coast Guard patrol vessel and three People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia vessels.
Te Mana was under the command of Commander Lisa Hunn, with a crew of 176 on board. Hunn assumed command of Te Mana in 2017, becoming the first woman in the New Zealand Navy to captain a frigate. She had her sights set on the South China Sea and acknowledged tensions in the region as China expanded its interests.
“HMNZS Te Mana responded throughout with a standard reply stating that passage was being conducted in accordance with the International Law of the Sea,” Air Commodore AJ Woods said in a statement to Stuff Circuit.
“All communications … were of a professional manner and followed the Code of Unexpected Encounters at Sea format.”
“Transits by New Zealand Defence Force vessels through the South China Sea have occurred frequently for decades due to it being a major global shipping route and a critical path for ongoing engagement in South East Asia in support of our partners in the region,” said Woods.
“These transits demonstrate our continued interest in and commitment to the region.”
Woods described the communications as ‘’routine’’.
But a source told Stuff Circuit the revelations outline “one hell of an incident that they are trying very hard to downplay”.
The close call that happened around the same time saw the USS Decatur and a Chinese destroyer come within 41 metres of each other in the Spratlys area. Australian vessels had also been closely followed earlier in the year.
Professor David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, said the encounter appeared to be ‘’fairly routine and professional’’ and the reason for it – when New Zealand Navy ships have transited through the South China Sea for decades – was difficult to pinpoint.
It was possibly motivated by the release of the 2018 strategic defence policy statement ‘’which marked a real turning point in the way New Zealand talked about its relationship with China’’.
More likely, however, was increasing tension between the US and China which saw high-level defence exchanges called off, he said.
“Tensions were pretty high, so it’s likely the PLAN were keeping an especially close watch on foreign warships.”
New Zealand does not currently have a presence in the South China Sea, but Little said there had been instances of interceptions of air force P3 Orion aircraft monitoring the area to uphold UN sanctions against North Korea.
“There’ve been interdictions by Chinese air force planes but it’s been flying close by and making contact and that’s it.’’
Capie said the Government preferred not to publicize these encounters: “It tends to see raising the profile of these actions as an additional provocation”.
In recent years China has expanded the use of coast guard patrol boats as ‘’military muscle’’, the New York Times reported last week, while the maritime militia vessels, also in the flotilla confronting Te Mana, operate in a ‘’grey zone’’, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
According to a 2021 report by the CSIS, military militia are “ostensibly engaged in commercial fishing but … in fact operate alongside Chinese law enforcement and military to achieve Chinese political objectives in disputed waters.
“The tactics employed by the militia pose a significant challenge to those interested in maintaining a maritime order rooted in international law.”
The CSIS noted that since China had completed artificial island outposts in 2016, militia boats were deployed to the Spratlys “in greater numbers and on a more constant basis than ever before’’.
Capie said China passed a new law in 2021 giving its Coast Guard powers to use force against foreign vessels in waters over which China claims sovereignty.
“It’s an attempt to expand its domestic jurisdiction into waters that an international tribunal has concluded don’t belong to China. These are also not your usual law enforcement vessels. Some of them are huge, several times the tonnage of New Zealand’s frigates. They have a longer range, more muscle, and they have been used to ram vessels of other claimant countries.
“But because they are Chinese Coast Guard, not navy vessels, it creates an additional layer of complication for foreign vessels in how to respond without further escalating things.”
The Defence Force said Te Mana followed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea but would not provide details about its protocols for dealing with vessels like the maritime militia which operate in ‘’a legal grey zone’’, according to the CSIS.
Little did not expect the Te Mana interaction would have been raised at a diplomatic level unless it was considered unprofessional, bordering on hostility or putting people at risk.
He said New Zealand was committed to annual exercises in the South China Sea area as part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements with Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and the UK.
In 2021 the frigate HMNZS Te Kaha traversed the South China Sea in a show of military force led by the UK’s Carrier Strike Group.
The military had protocols in place to handle any provocation, according to Little.
“They know what their rights and obligations are [under] international law and they will uphold international law governing these activities. We’re not in the business of stepping outside our international legal obligations and rights.’’
The People’s Republic of China did not respond to requests for comment sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassy in Wellington.
Source : Stuff