Chinese Warship Injures Australian Navy Divers With its Sonar

Ningbo (left) and sister ship Hangzhou, 2021 (PLA Navy file image)

Published Nov 18, 2023 11:23 PM by The Maritime Executive

The government of Australia claims that a Chinese warship injured a team of Australian military divers by activating its powerful sonar. It is the most serious allegation yet involving an interaction between the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and a Western naval force, and the first reported injury. 

On November 14, the Australian frigate HMAS Toowoomba was operating off Japan in support of a UN sanctions enforcement mission. While under way, its props became fouled by a fishing net. To resolve the problem, the crew sent a team of divers down to clear the nets so that the ship could get back under way. They notified nearby traffic that they had divers down by making a VHF radio call and by putting up standard signs. 

While the divers were working, the Chinese warship Ningbo (pennant number 139) approached. The crew of the frigate attempted to warn off the Chinese vessel and radioed to inform the crew that there were divers below. The Chinese ship acknowledged the warning but 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 divers . . . sustained minor injuries likely due to being subjected to the sonar pulses from the Chinese destroyer,” said the ministry.

Active sonar can affect human divers with unpleasant effects, including dizziness, headaches and hearing damage. Military-grade active sonar is built for finding submarines at long range, and in close proximity, it can cause severe injury or death at full power.  

Ningbo is a Sovremenny-class destroyer, purchased by China from Russia's Severnaya Verf in 2002 and commissioned in 2006. She is operated by the PLA Navy's East Sea Fleet. 

The defense ministry did not publicly report the casualty until November 18, one day after Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese completed a high-level diplomatic meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco. 

"While the responsibility is solely on the Chinese PLA Navy, the Albanese Government also has some serious questions to answer," Australian opposition coalition spokesman Andrew Hastie said in a statement. "Reports that the Prime Minister knew about this incident and deliberately withheld information until after leaving for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit are, if true, outrageous and unacceptable."

Albanese has not yet confirmed whether he was aware of the matter at the time, or whether he discussed it with Xi Jinping during their meeting on Friday.