Australia says Chinese naval vessel sailing off its western coast an ‘act of aggression’

Incident is the latest sign of tension between Canberra and Beijing, who have been embroiled in a diplomatic and trade spat

A photograph from the Australian Defence Force on May 13th showing  the Chinese naval  vessel Haiwangxing  sailing off the northwest shelf of Australia.  Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

A photograph from the Australian Defence Force on May 13th showing the Chinese naval vessel Haiwangxing sailing off the northwest shelf of Australia. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

 

Australia’s defence minister Peter Dutton has accused China of committing an “act of aggression” after a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval vessel came within 50 nautical miles of a naval communications centre.

Australia’s department of defence said the Dongdiao Class intelligence ship Haiwangxing had entered the country’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles to sea, and been monitored over the past five days.

The vessel hugged the western Australian coastline and sailed close to Exmouth, where a cluster of radio towers is located at a naval base that is used by the US and other allies’ submarines, and was now travelling northeast.

Mr Dutton said it was “unusual” that Australian authorities had not been informed about the ship’s course, and that it was “unprecedented” that a Chinese vessel had headed so far south.

Asked about Mr Dutton’s comments, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he was unfamiliar with the situation, but that Beijing “always abides by international laws and conventions”.

“The relevant politicians in Australia should look at things calmly and objectively, and should refrain from alarmism,” Mr Zhao said.

The disclosure is the latest sign of tension between Canberra and Beijing, which have been embroiled in a diplomatic and trade spat. A PLA ship that used a laser against an Australian surveillance plane in the Arafura Sea off Australia’s northern coast in March and a security pact signed last month between China and the Solomon Islands have both increased friction.

Australia’s decision to sign an Aukus defence deal with the US and UK to counter an increasingly assertive China has also angered Beijing.

Mr Dutton made the allegations just a week ahead of an election that is partly being fought on national security grounds. The government has argued that the opposition Labor party – which is ahead in the polls – cannot be trusted to protect the country against China.

But he denied that the decision to publicise the Haiwangxing’s manoeuvres was part of the government’s election campaign. “It is best that people are made fully aware of what is a very unusual path and course that they have taken,” Mr Dutton said.

Beijing’s reach

Marcus Hellyer, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank, said the Chinese navy was within its rights to have taken that course but it was the latest indication of Beijing’s reach.

“There is nothing technically illegal about it but it is another demonstration of their growing capability and we are going to see more and more of this,” he said. “We are a very attractive target due to our closeness to the US.”

Mr Dutton’s accusation was made directly after a debate between Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, and her Labor counterpart Penny Wong, during which both agreed that they would stand up to China’s economic and diplomatic pressure after the election.

“Our relationship with China has changed because China has changed,” Ms Wong said, adding that her party would not take a “backwards step” if it was voted into power.

Xiao Qian, China’s ambassador to Australia since January, has sought to calm relations in recent days. “A healthy and stable relationship is in the fundamental interests of our two countries and our people. Mutual benefit is the imperative, an only pathway, for the development of China-Australia relations,” he wrote this week in the Australian Financial Review. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022