Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the presence of a Chinese intelligence vessel off the west coast of Australia “concerning” on Friday.
Tracked off Australia's west coast within 50 nautical miles of a sensitive defence facility, the Chinese vessel has not entered the country’s territorial waters.
The intelligence-gathering ship raised concerns amid Australia’s election campaign of May 21 that has seen PM Morrison’s Liberal party going neck to neck with the Australian Labour Party. The question of a national security threat posed by China has been a major campaign theme.
“It is clearly an intelligence ship and they are looking at us and we're keeping a close eye on them,” the PM said.
What was particularly concerning about the ship’s behaviour was its itinerary leading past the Harold E Holt naval communications station at Exmouth – a facility used by Australian, US and allied submarines.
China's embassy in Australia did not comment on the development.
An act of aggression
“I think it is an act of aggression
. I think particularly because it has come so far south,” Defence Minister Peter Dutton told a news conference. “It has been in close proximity to military and intelligence installations
on the west coast of Australia.”
China’s growing influence in Australia and the Pacific region has strained its relations with Australia in recent years.
“We haven't seen a ship from the People's Liberation Army Navy come this far south and it's tracking up toward Darwin at the moment,” said Mr Dutton and questioned the “strange timing” of the vessel's appearance although Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews declined to link it to the election campaign.
On the face of it, the arrival of the vessel does raise questions. The ships approached the communications station just hours after China called Australia’s stance on its security pact clinched with the Solomon Islands “inverting black and white.”
The opposition Labor Party said it was seeking a briefing from the government.
However bold the move on the part of the Chinese navy, its vessels had been off the Australian coast previously. They have appeared off Australia's north and eastern coasts several times in recent years. In fact, the same Chinese vessel monitored Australian navy exercises with the US military off the east coast in 2021.
However, in February the situation became tense when China and Australia exchanged accusations when an Australia maritime patrol aircraft detected a laser directed at it from a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel.
Regarding the latest incident, Australia's defence department said in a statement the Dongdiao Class Auxiliary Intelligence ship named Haiwangxing travelled down the west coast, crossing into Australia's Economic Exclusion Zone on May 6, and coming within 50 nautical miles of the communications station on May 11.
“I certainly don't believe that when you take it together with the many other coercive acts and the many statements that have been made which have been attacking Australia's national interests, you could describe it as an act of bridge-building or friendship,” PM Morrison said.
Reuters, TVP World