Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Monday criticised China for a “dangerous encounter” between Chinese and Australian warships in international waters that injured a diver last week. However, he did not say whether he raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The incident occurred last Tuesday when an Australian diver was injured when a Chinese destroyer used sonar near an Australian frigate. Defence Minister Richard Marles on Saturday said that he had raised serious concerns with Beijing about the destroyer’s “unsafe and unprofessional behaviour”.
“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 said in an interview with Sky News.
The Australian PM, who spoke to Xi on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco, maintained that his discussions with the Chinese President were private, rather than a formal bilateral meeting.
Meanwhile, opposition leaders in Australia 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 said that the incident “does do damage” to Australia’s relationship with China, which has shown visible improvement in recent months. “This was dangerous, it was unsafe and unprofessional from the Chinese forces,” Albanese said.
Australia said the Chinese destroyer Ningbo operated its sonar while Australian naval divers were underwater trying to clear fishing nets that tangled the propellers of their ship HMAS Toowoomba. Defence officials have not specified the injuries or number of divers, but media have reported the divers’ ears were injured.
Australia claimed that the Toowoomba notified the Ningbo that diving operations were underway and asked the Chinese ships to steer clear. However, the Ningbo approached using hull-mounted sonar equipment, placing the divers at risk and forcing them from the water, defence officials say.
On the other hand, Chinese media questioned the Australian version that the Toowoomba was in international waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone when it encountered the Ningbo. If the Toowoomba had been near Chinese islands or a Chinese military training exercise, the Australian warship would have provoked the Chinese, an unnamed military expert said.
Sonar is believed to cause extensive soft tissue damage to divers at close range. Several Western countries have complained about dangerous actions by Chinese forces, which can lead to an international conflict.
In what is being perceived as an improvement in relations between Australia and China, Albanese became the first PM to visit Beijing in seven years since Ley’s government was voted out of office in 2022 after nine years in power.
During his visit, Albanese met Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday as both leaders welcomed the gradual improvement in ties in the past year and emphasised the importance of engaging with each other despite differences on issues such as defence.
Notably, China, a major market for Australia, has lifted some trade restrictions on Australian products since the two leaders first met in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022. “The progress we have made in advancing our relationship over that time has been unquestionably very positive,” Albanese said in opening remarks to Xi before the media. “Trade is flowing more freely to the benefit of both countries.”
Relations nosedived in recent years as suspicions of Chinese interference in Australian politics increased. China, in turn, was angered by Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 virus. China levied tariffs and unofficial trade barriers that are estimated to have cost Australian exporters up to 20 billion Australian dollars ($13 billion) a year for products such as coal, wine, beef, barley and lobsters.
Those barriers have since been substantially reduced and now cost about $2 billion Australian dollars ($1.3 billion). China has signalled that it is moving toward lifting punishing tariffs on Australian wine that dealt a severe setback to the industry. “We even had a bit of a debate about wine and the quality,” Albanese told reporters.
(with inputs from AP)