Chinese military personnel were spotted unloading boxes of highly sought after Australian baby formula onto their warship the day before leaving Sydney Harbour.
The photograph, taken Thursday, shows military staff unloading boxes of baby formula from a van, along with boxes of whitening sheet face masks and Devondale brand long life milk.
Australian brand baby formula has become a highly sought after product in China over the last ten years, after a mass milk poisoning in the region led to the injury and deaths of many babies.
Three Chinese warships quietly entered Sydney Harbour on Monday morning, where they landed at the Garden Island naval base. The arrival surprised many Australians, including the premier of NSW Gladys Berejiklian, who wasn’t aware the city would be playing host to the vessels and their 700 crew.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was on a trip to the Solomon Islands when the ships arrived, downplayed public reaction and assured reporters their arrive was not a “surprise” visit.
“It may have been a surprise to others, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise to the Government,” he said.
“They were returning after a counter drug trafficking operation in the Middle East.”
The extraordinary photo of personnel loading the formula and other products, including boxes of face masks and long life milk, was taken on Thursday ahead of the warships exit from the harbour on Friday afternoon.
In 2008 milk and infant formula became contaminated in China, leading to an estimated 300,000 victims in the region. 54,000 babies were hospitalised, and six infants died.
In the years since the scandal, consumer trust in Chinese milk products has eroded, and clandestine black market baby formula vendors, or daigous, have sprung up selling baby formula from Australia and European nations at a highly inflated price, for profit.
Police have made a number of raids and arrests in the past over theft syndicates and hoarding by individuals and groups.
Major Australian retailers implemented tin limits to control sales of baby formula, preventing unfairness, but reports of shoppers flouting the system continue to surface. Accounts from shoppers last year included people taking multiple tins of the formula before they’d been placed on shelves, and shoppers stripping shelves in groups of up to eight people.
In April of this year, police charged eight people for allegedly stealing $1 million worth of baby formula and vitamins and helping to ship it overseas. Four of those charged were from the same family.
In August 2018, police raided two homes in Carlingford and uncovered 4000 tins of baby formula, large quantities of vitamins and Manuka honey. Police alleged all of these items had been stolen.
Security analysts called the arrival of the three warships on Monday, which wasn’t announced to the public “aggressive”.
“That raised a lot of hackles,” John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, told the ABC.
“The ships arrived off Darling Point and other famous places in Sydney’s harbour without people knowing in advance … and with armed soldiers and sailors on the decks of the ships looking fairly aggressive.”
The warships exited the harbour early Friday afternoon.