China Blames Australian Navy for Divers' Sonar Injuries

HMAS Toowoomba
HMAS Toowoomba (USN file image)

Published Nov 21, 2023 7:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

The government of China has flatly rejected Australian accusations that one of its warships "pinged" a team of Royal Australian Navy divers with high-powered sonar, injuring them and forcing them to halt in-water repairs. 

"The Chinese military is strictly disciplined and always operates professionally in accordance with the international law and international common practices. We hope relevant parties will stop making trouble in front of China’s doorsteps and work with China to preserve the momentum of improving and growing China-Australia ties," said spokeswoman Mao Ning on Monday evening. 

The government of Australia claims that a Chinese warship injured a team of Australian military divers by activating its sub-hunting sonar. On November 14, the Australian frigate HMAS Toowoomba was operating off Japan in support of a UN sanctions enforcement mission. A net fouled its props, so the crew sent a team of divers down to untangle the mess. While the divers were working, the Chinese warship Ningbo (pennant number 139) approached. The crew of Toowoomba attempted to warn off the Chinese vessel, but Ningbo continued to approach, and "it was detected operating its hull-mounted sonar in a manner that posed a risk to the safety of the Australian divers," according to the Australian Ministry of Defence.

The Australian defense minister called out the PLA Navy for what he described as "unsafe and unprofessional conduct."

The Global Times, a state-owned outlet focused on Chinese foreign policy, has questioned the Australian version of events, including the location of the run-in, the radio interaction and the extent of any harm to the divers.

"Did the incident take place near China's Diaoyu Islands or the island of Taiwan? Or was it close to a PLA training exercise? If that is the case, it was obvious that the Australian warship provoked China in the first place," one Chinese defense official told Global Times, excusing the Ningbo's actions. 

Another Chinese analyst tolld the outlet that HMS Toowoomba had actually endangered the work of Chinese fishermen by encountering their fishing nets in waters near China.