No, they're probably not taking selfies with coronavirus quarantine patients. Instead, it appears that a high tech Chinese ship is busy mapping the waters off Christmas Island for strategic reasons.
As the ABC reports, the Australian Border Force has confirmed that a Chinese research vessel conducted deepwater surveys near the Australian mainland through January and February. Specifically, the ship worked off the coast of Christmas Island and travelled through waters in the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (AEEZ) in the process.
The ship, the Xiang Yang Hong 01 was commissioned in 2016 according to the ABC report and US Naval War College analysis, with a specific focus on "the field of military oceanography".
The waters in that area hold significant strategic value, especially for submarine travel, and the ABC report indicates that during the time the Xiang Yang Hong 01 was travelling through waters off the Western Australian coastline, the US submarine USS Texas travelled as part of a scheduled visit to HMAS Stirling naval base outside Perth.
An ABF spokesperson told Gizmodo Australia that:
"The Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Defence are aware that a Chinese oceanographic ship Xiang Yang Hong 01 was operating off the coast of Western Australia. The vessel did not enter the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (AEEZ) other than for a direct transit through the AEEZ when transiting past Christmas Island."
So what's actually at stake here? The area is seen as strategically significant because it appears that China may be ramping up efforts to develop its own military understanding of those waterways, as well as Australian response to any seemingly aggressive moves.
For its part, China's position on the Xiang Yang Hong 01 is that it's involved in scientific research. The ABC quotes Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang as saying that, "China's oceanographic, scientific research in the Western Pacific is totally in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and made contributions to maritime scientific study."
While our knowledge of the ocean is still emerging, oceanography is certainly a fascinating field of study — and so is international politics.