SYDNEY — The Australian prime minister today said his government has raised the “strongest possible objection” after a Chinese navy ship allegedly used sonar in a way that harmed an Australian diver, an incident that prompted sharp questions from the opposition here as well as a demand for “consequences.”
“We’ve made it clear that we disagree with what occurred, that we have the strongest possible objection, and that this sort of event should not occur,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in an interview with Sky News. “The [Australian] frigate involved clearly had out a sign that there were divers below. They were freeing up a fishing net from the equipment that was required under the water. And they should have been allowed to undertake this normal activity without this sort of intervention from the Chinese.”
Australian divers from the HMAS Toowoomba were in the water on Nov. 14 in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, a Chinese ship “approached at a closer range, according to an Australian government statement released four days later. Soon after, it was detected operating its hull-mounted sonar in a manner that posed a risk to the safety of the Australian divers who were forced to exit the water.” (Albanese later told Sky News that one diver “suffered an injury.”)
The Australian government said that before the incident its ship had “communicated its intention to conduct diving operations on normal maritime channels, using internationally recognised signals,” and the Chinese ship had acknowledged the message.
“The Australian Government has expressed its serious concerns to the Chinese Government following an unsafe and unprofessional interaction with a People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) destroyer,” Saturday’s statement said.
The Australian opposition’s shadow home affairs minister, James Paterson, told the Australian Broadcasting Company today that the Chinese military has “shown flagrant disrespect for Australia and our service personnel by their behaviour and if there are no consequences for them, you can bet they’ll do it again and again and again.”
The opposition also raised pointed questions about the government’s timing: Though the incident occurred last Tuesday, the public statement wasn’t made until Saturday, after the end of the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum in San Francisco attended by Albanese and leaders of several nations, including China’s Xi Jinping.
“The Prime Minister must explain why he chose to wait until after he left the country to disclose this information, and whether he raised it directly with President Xi Jinping at APEC,” shadow defense minister Andrew Hastie said Saturday, accusing the Albanese government of “a lack of leadership and a lack of action.”
Today Albanese made it clear he did not have a bilateral meeting with Xi in San Francisco where he could have raised the incident. As to any discussions he might have had with Xi on the sidelines of APEC, he repeated something he often says, that he does not discuss private meetings. “That’s how you keep communications open. But I can assure you that we raised these issues in the appropriate way and very clearly, unequivocally,” he told Sky News.
The incident also rippled back to the US where Xi had been welcomed by US President Joe Biden on Wednesday, just hours after the purported sonar pulses.
The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Roger Wicker, published a statement saying, “The Chinese Communist Party respects only strength, and only through strength will they refrain from such unacceptable behavior.”
“Only days after President Biden met with Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, Beijing is once again harassing U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific,” he said, perhaps confusing the timeline a bit. “While the Biden Administration celebrates hollow U.S.-China ‘working groups’ as meaningful progress and Xi Jinping receives a standing ovation from American CEOs, the United States and our allies need to continue the hard work of bolstering deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.”
Asked about the incident today, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry deferred to “competent authorities for specific information,” but said, “The Chinese military is strictly disciplined and always operates professionally in accordance with the international law and international common practices. We hope relevant parties will stop making trouble in front of China’s doorsteps and work with China to preserve the momentum of improving and growing China-Australia ties.”
The government controlled Global Times put it more bluntly when echoing China’s former defense minister’s comments at the Shangri-La Dialogues: “These countries should stop sending warships and warplanes from thousands of kilometers away to stir up troubles and flex their muscles on China’s doorstep, experts said.”