China takes part in Australia's largest maritime exercise for first time

The Australian naval fleet commander has called on his counterparts — including those from China — to respect "freedom of navigation" and promote "free and open international order", during a speech at the nation's largest maritime exercise.

Exercise Kakadu launched in Darwin last night, and will see the navies from 27 countries train off the Top End coast.

China has sent a warship and will participate for the first time.

During the Fleet Commanders Conference on Saturday, Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead spoke of the importance of respecting "freedom of navigation" — a right that allows vessels of one country to navigate waters passing near another country.

But he made no specific mention of China's claims to the South China Sea, which have caused tension.

In April this year, the ABC revealed three Australian warships were challenged by the Chinese military as they travelled through the South China Sea.

A month later, reports emerged that claimed China had installed missile systems in the Spratly Islands.

"From the smallest island nations to the largest global super powers, we all prosper from greater maritime security built on the foundation of agreed rules for how all nations behave at sea," Rear Admiral Mead said.

"Respect for freedom of navigation must be maintained by all nations, particularly through our complex area.

"While there may be great diversity in our political and economic institutions, as mariners with expansive experience and knowledge of our oceans, we really do understand the sentiment that 'A rising tide lifts all boats' — we thrive together or we fail together."

Photo Admiral Jun Xinchun, from China, is pictured second from the left during the Fleet Commander's Conference.

Navy admirals and senior officials sit during the presentation ABC News: Emily Smith

As the Indo-Asia-Pacific region increasingly came under a global spotlight, he said there was a need to strengthen relationships and build partnerships to promote "free and open international order".

"While we are not the policy makers or the ones who dictate our national priorities we are the executioners of that intent," he said.

"In the dynamic strategic environment in which we find ourselves, rather than stepping back from our region, there is a clear need to engage more broadly and more deeply."

Photo The Lowy Institute's Euan Graham said issues such as armed robbery, piracy and people smuggling were discussed.

A head shot of Euan Graham ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough
'A white-uniform cult of the sea'

The Lowy Institute's Euan Graham, who gave a presentation during the Fleet Commanders Conference, said the messaging during Rear Admiral Mead's speech was intentionally broad.

"I think inevitably China is a core part of the audience but it's a broad based message that the admiral was trying to send," Mr Graham said.

"Certainly when he refers to "freedom of navigation" that will obviously register particularly on the Chinese audience.

"But it's more complex than that."

He said most of the core problems were at a political level, rather than between maritime operatives, whom he described being part of a "kind of brotherhood".

"They are like a white uniform cult of the sea," he said.

In order to reach a diverse audience, from small island states to powerful nations, he said much of the talk focussed on broad security issues like armed robbery, piracy, people smuggling.

Photo Thai Navy attaché Captain Pitak Nayaso speaks ahead of the Fleet Commanders Conference.

Thai Navy attaché Captain Pitak Nayaso speaks to the ABC outside NT Parliament House. ABC News: Emily Smith
'Avoiding tension in the future'

Thai Navy attaché Captain Pitak Nayaso was asked what it was like to have China participating, given the tensions in the South China Sea.

He said it was "a good opportunity for helping avoiding tension in the future".

"I think it is a very good opportunity to … talk or to meet with people from the Chinese Navy so we can be friends and have a common understanding of what is going on," he said.

US Navy attaché Captain Tony DeFrias was asked the same question.

"It's not about any one or any two partners, its about all 28 [sic] countries being here in this great international training opportunity," he said.

Photo This year 27 countries are participating in Exercise Kakadu.

A senior navy representative from each of the 27 countries stands in front of NT Parliament House ABC News: Emily Smith

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