The Manila Times

Australian PM hits China over sonar use

CANBERRA: Australia’s 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 last Saturday that he had raised serious concerns with Beijing about the destroyer’s unsafe and unprofessional behavior.

Between the encounter and Marles’ statement, Albanese spoke to Xi on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, California.

Albanese said on Monday that 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,” he said.

Opposition lawmakers have accused Albanese of failing to raise the encounter with Xi because the premier 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, a sign that relations have improved since Ley’s coalition government was voted out of office in 2022 after nine years in power.

The American, 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 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 that the divers’ ears were injured.

Analysts say sonar 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 hull-mounted sonar equipment, placing the divers at risk and forcing them from the water, defense officials say.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper on Sunday 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 told the state-run paper.

The incident “does do damage” to Australia’s relationship with China, Albanese said.

“This was dangerous; it was unsafe and unprofessional from the Chinese forces,” he added.

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