Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been slammed after divers with the Royal Australian Navy suffered minor injuries during an incident involving a Chinese warship off the coast of Japan.
The federal government has confirmed the naval personnel were hurt on Tuesday while performing a mission in support of United Nations sanctions enforcement.
Defence Minister Richard Marles said HMAS Toowoomba was operating in international waters when a People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) destroyer approached, despite communications with Toowoomba.
The Chinese ship activated its sonar, forcing the navy divers to exit the water.
“Medical assessments conducted after the divers exited the water identified they had sustained minor injuries likely due to being subjected to the sonar pulses from the Chinese destroyer,” said Mr Marles in a statement.
Mr Marles has slammed the PLA-N ship’s manoeuvre as “unsafe and unprofessional.”
“Australia expects all countries, including China, to operate their militaries in a professional and safe manner,” he said.
The opposition’s defence spokesman Andrew Hastie has slammed the government for keeping the incident from the public.
“The Coalition condemns the actions of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) in which Royal Australian Navy divers on HMAS Toowoomba were injured in international waters last Tuesday,” Mr Hastie said in a statement.
“While the responsibility is solely on the Chinese PLA Navy, the Albanese Government also has some serious questions to answer.
“Reports that the Prime Minister knew about this incident and deliberately withheld information until after leaving for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit are, if true, outrageous and unacceptable.”
Mr Hastie said the Prime Minister “must explain” why he chose to wait after he left the country to disclose the information and whether it was raised directly with President Xi Jinping at APEC.
“What we continue to see from the Prime Minister and his Labor government is a lack of leadership and a lack of action,” Mr Hastie said.
“In a week in which the government has failed its most basic task – to keeping Australians safe – the Albanese government has again proved that it can’t be trusted on national security.
“We have always said that we will judge the Chinese Communist Party on their actions rather than their words, and this provocative behaviour contradicts the Government’s belief they are witnessing a stabilisation of the relationship with China. This incident is evidence to the contrary.
“The Prime Minister must immediately disclose whether he raised this matter with President Xi, or whether it was withheld for expedient political purposes. Any failure to do so would rightly raise questions around Anthony Albanese’s ability to lead our nation.”
The Coalition’s home affairs spokesman James Paterson said the act was “deliberate” and contradicted China’s “handsome boy” rhetoric that surrounded Mr Albanese’s visit to Beijing.
“I think when it comes to our very complex and bilateral relationship with the People’s Republic of China, we have to look at the actions of the Chinese Government, not just their words,” he told ABC’s Insiders.
“It is very easy to get caught up in the platitude and praise, the handsome boy rhetoric, but things like this, an active decision by the People’s Liberation Army Navy to put Australian Navy personnel in harm’s way and cause harm to them that we should really be judging the Chinese Government by.”
He also said he wanted answers on whether Mr Albanese had raised the issue with Mr Xi or other officials.
While the frigate was in international waters, it fell within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
Toowoomba is an ANZAC class frigate with long-range capabilities, able to carry out defence against air, surface, and undersea targets.
The incident comes after Mr Albanese earlier this month made the first official visit to Beijing by an Australian Prime Minister in seven years.
During the visit, the Prime Minister met with President Xi Jinping who leader praised Mr Albanese for “working to stabilise and improve relations with China”.
Mr Xi at the time said Mr Albanese’s visit was “highly significant as it builds on the past and ushers in the future.”
Tensions between the two nation’s naval forces were heightened last year, when a Chinese spy vessel was spotted in waters off Western Australia.
The auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) vessel was monitored by the ADF sailing past the Harold E Holt naval station at Exmouth.
Then-defence minister Peter Dutton at the time said the incident was “unprecedented” and “very strange.”
“It has been in close proximity to military and intelligence installations on the west coast of Australia,” Mr Dutton said.
Chinese spy ships were also present in the Coral Sea during AUKUS naval exercises being held on Australia’s east coast in July.
Mr Marles at the time said he wasn’t concerned, as the Chinese usually send a spy ship to monitor the exercises every time they’ve been held since 2013.