Anthony Albanese has fallen short of revealing whether he raised an incident that left Australian naval divers injured after a run-in with a Chinese warship with Xi Jinping.
The Prime Minister wouldn’t confirm or deny whether he brought it up directly with the Chinese president on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco last week.
But he did say he the “regrettable incident” was put “very early, very directly” through all of the “appropriate channels”.
“China is in no misunderstanding as to Australia’s view on this,” he said on Monday afternoon.
The HMAS Toowoomba was conducting an operation in Japan’s exclusive economic zone when fishing nets became entangled around its propellers.
Despite the vessel notifying a People’s Liberation Army-Navy warship of the operation to clear the nets, and requesting the destroyer keep clear, it approached at a close ran.
Soon after, it operated its hull-mountain sonar in a way that posed a risk to the safety of the Australian divers who were forced to exit the water.
The divers suffered minor injuries.
Defence Minister Richard Marles confirmed the incident on Saturday, a day after Mr Albanese boasted of a long and fruitful talk with Mr Xi at the summit.
It lead to pressure from the Coalition who questioned why Mr Albanese had not revealed if he personally raised the matter with the Chinese President.
“We were supposed to be normalising relationships with China – is this how you normalise them?,” Nationals frontbencher Barnaby Joyce told Sunrise.
“They would have known that he would meet President Xi while this is happening and they release the sonar pulses. They can cause massive damage to people, and they do it deliberately to hurt you.
“And now you have a prime minister who won’t say whether he brought it up. This is for the comedy hour, this is ridiculous.”
Speaking with Sky News later on Monday, Mr Albanese said he was “very concerned” by the incident which he described as “dangerous, unsafe and unprofessional from the Chinese military”.
“This is the sort of incident I’ve spoken about … why we need communication and guard rails, and we need to avoid reckless events like this. This is why we’ve made our strong objections to China,” the Prime Minister said.
“This is one of those times we disagree with China... this sort of event should not occur.”
Former prime minister turned US ambassador Kevin Rudd said the incident was “unacceptable by international standards”, and the government had made it “absolutely clear” to China.
He said the question on whether Mr Albanese had spoken with Mr Xi about the incident was “a distraction”.
“The bottom line is these communications occurred between the Australian government through the medium of the Acting Prime Minister, who is also the Defence Minister,” he said.
“I’m not in a position to comment on the content of a prime ministerial level discussion with the Chinese President or with any other of the, frankly, dozen heads of government with whom the Prime Minister spoke while he was here at the APEC summit.”
Pressed on whether the incident undermined China’s position that it wanted a better relationship with Australia, Mr Rudd said China had to use their actions.
“The Australian government has sought to stabilise its relationship with China as well, but that is one thing,” he said.
“Often, what unfolds in the field, that will be subject to day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month testing.”