CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Monday criticized China for a “dangerous” encounter between Chinese and Australian warships but declined to say whether he had raised the issue in recent talks with President Xi Jinping.
He said one Australian diver was injured when a Chinese destroyer used sonar while near an Australian frigate in international waters last Tuesday. Defense Minister Richard Marles said Saturday he had raised serious concerns with Beijing about the destroyer’s unsafe and unprofessional behavior.
China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian on Monday dismissed Australia’s allegations as “completely untrue.”
Between the encounter and Marles’ statement, Albanese spoke to Xi on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific leaders’ summit in San Francisco.
Albanese said on Monday his discussions with Xi were private, rather than a formal bilateral meeting in which content summaries are made public.
“I don’t talk about private meetings on the sidelines, discussions I have with any world leader,” Albanese told Sky News in his Parliament House office.
“It’s something that is a regrettable incident. That’s why we have put our very strong objections to China very clearly, very directly through all of the appropriate channels in all the forums that are available to us,” Albanese added.
He said the incident “does do damage” to Australia’s relationship with China. “This was dangerous, it was unsafe and unprofessional from the Chinese forces,” he said.
Opposition lawmakers have accused Albanese of failing to raise the encounter with Xi because the Australian leader did not want to risk setting back an improving bilateral relationship.
“More weak leadership from Anthony Albanese who appears to be prioritizing photo ops with Xi Jinping over speaking up for our people. Disgraceful,” senior opposition lawmaker Sussan Ley posted on social media.
Albanese recently became the first Australian prime minister to visit China in seven years in a sign that relations have improved since Ley’s coalition government was voted out of office in 2022 after nine years in power.
The U.S., Canadian and Australian militaries have complained multiple times about what they say have been dangerous actions by the Chinese navy and air force in the western Pacific. Analysts fear a collision or other accident could spark an international incident and escalate into conflict.
Australia said the Chinese destroyer CNS Ningbo operated its sonar while Australian naval divers were underwater trying to clear fishing nets that tangled the propellers of their ship HMAS Toowoomba.
Albanese said one diver was injured. Defense officials have not specified the injuries or number of divers, but media have reported the divers’ ears were injured.
Analysts say sonar pulses can cause extensive soft tissue damage to divers at close range.
Australia says the Toowoomba notified the Ningbo that diving operations were underway and asked the Chinese to keep clear.
But the Ningbo approached using a hull-mounted sonar equipment, placing the divers at risk and forcing them from the water, defense officials say.
The Chinese Defense Ministry denied Australia’s account that the interaction occured within Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Wu said the destroyer had been tracking and monitoring the frigate in accordance with international laws and regulations. The Chinese ship had maintained a safe distance and did not interfere with the Australian divers’ operations, he said.
“We urge the Australian side to respect the facts, stop making reckless and irresponsible accusations against China, do more to build up mutual trust between the two sides and create a positive atmosphere for the sound development of relations between the two countries and two militaries,” Wu said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the nation’s military was always highly disciplined and conducted professional operations in accordance with international law and international practice.
“We hope the relevant party will stop stirring up trouble at China’s doorstep and work with us to jointly sustain the momentum of the improvement and development of China-Australia relations,” Mao told a regular media briefing on Monday.
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