Australian warships confront Chinese Navy

SINGAPORE, APRIL 29. Australia, widely perceived as a deputy sheriff to the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, was recently involved in its own spat with China close on the heels of the April 1 spy place incident between the U.S. and China.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald on Sunday said that three Australian warships ``stared down'' the Chinese Navy while sailing through the Taiwan Strait earlier this month. It said a Chinese warship confronted the Australian flotilla while it was travelling from South Korea to Hong Kong.

``During a tense stand-off, the Chinese captain accused the Australians of breaching China's 12-nautical-mile territorial zone and ordered the guided missile frigate Newcastle, the frigate Arunta and the supply ship Success to leave the area,'' the newspaper claimed.

However, the Australian flotilla commander refused to change course. The confrontation between the Chinese and Australian navies remained secret till the Chinese Government complained to the Australian embassy in Beijing, the report added.

Earlier in the week, the Australian Prime Minister, Mr. John Howard, was targeted by China for backing the American President, Mr. George W. Bush's controversial statements on China.

Commenting on the incident involving Australian ships, Mr. Howard said: ``I don't think we should attach any new significance to what China has done, we have to keep it in perspective.''

``We won't be overreacting to it... there has been a longstanding difference between China's interpretation of what international law allows in such circumstances and what other countries interpret international law to allow.

``All the Australian vessels were conducting themselves quite properly and fully in accordance with international law,'' the Prime Minister was quoted as saying.

The Australian Foreign Minister, Mr. Alexander Downer's office has also denied that the incident was a problem for the two countries, reports from Sydney said.

``Our position is, our ships were exercising their rights under the international law of the sea which provides that foreign vessels can pass through another country's territorial waters, under the right of innocent passage, as it's described,'' a spokesman was quoted as saying.

China, which has launched a campaign against foreign military activity in its 320-km economic exclusion zone, was perhaps disturbed by the presence of Australian ships so soon after the collision between the U.S. spy plane and one of its fighter aircraft.

Given the geopolitical realities in the world and the power- projecting proclivities of emerging powers, these cat-and- mouse games as reflected in the spy plane incident as well as the confrontation between the Australian and Chinese ships, are an indicator of the state of play between contending militaries.

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