ROCKHAMPTON, Australia — The high-end warfare being practiced by U.S. and Australian forces at a major exercise in Australia has attracted an unwanted visitor in the form of a Chinese intelligence-gathering ship.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has reported that a People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, Type 815 (Dongdiao-class electronic surveillance ship) was sighted in waters off the Australian state of Queensland where Exercise Talisman Saber is being held. Australia’s Department of Defence subsequently confirmed that the ship, which it calls an auxiliary general intelligence vessel, “has remained outside Australia’s territorial waters but inside the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone in the Coral Sea.”

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The agency added that “the vessel’s presence has not detracted from the Exercise objectives,” with senior officers at the exercise remaining equally sanguine about the vessel’s presence. The maritime component commander at the exercise, Royal Australian Navy Commodore Mal Wise, observed that “we subscribe as the U.S. does to the freedom of the global commons and rules-based global order, and as long as they’re operating within that construct,” Australia has no objections.

Talisman Saber is a biennial U.S. and Australian exercise designed to improve combat readiness and interoperability between both forces in planning and conducting combined task force operations. This year’s exercise saw 33,000 personnel participate, and included smaller contingents from New Zealand, Japan and Canada, with the bulk of activity taking place on and in the vicinity of the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in central Queensland.

These activities included amphibious landings, paratroop drops, land-force maneuver operations, and air and maritime operations, and the exercise saw the use of sophisticated capabilities that included U.S. Navy and Australian Boeing E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, the General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle and AAI RQ-7 Shadow UAVs, all of which would have been the key targets of China’s signals intelligence collection efforts.

The vessel, of which a photo released by the Australian Defence Department shows to be the Haiwangxing, or Neptune, could have also used its communications intelligence suite to attempt to eavesdrop on exercise communications as well as used its radars to gain an insight into how the allied air and naval forces conducted operations during the exercise.

The presence of the Type 815 off Australia is the latest example of China’s rapidly improving naval capabilities. Last week the North American Aerospace Defense Command confirmed that another Chinese intelligence-gathering ship was sighted off the coast of Alaska, believed to be monitoring the successful test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, a missile defense system test that was carried out at the same time.

Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute, noted in its Interpreter blog that these intelligence-gathering activities by China, while perfectly legal, smacks of double standards given “China’s longstanding, vociferous objections to what it terms ‘close-in surveillance’ by the U.S. Navy within China’s EEZ.” Although he added that there is now “a clear precedent that Australian officials and senior naval officers can use to justify freedom of navigation and overflight within China’s EEZ and its more ambiguous claims to waters in the South China Sea.”

The PLAN currently has six Type 815s in service, with construction on a seventh ship underway at a shipyard in Shanghai. The 6,000-ton, 430-foot-long ships carry what is believed to be a powerful intelligence-gathering suite in prominent dome- or cylinder-shaped radomes and a plethora of other antennas.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.

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