Australia’s defence minister has condemned China after the discovery of a spy ship operating off the country’s western coast.
Peter Dutton told a news conference Australia had been following the ship’s movements in the “last week or so”.
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“Its intention, of course, is to collect intelligence right along the coastline,” Dutton said. “It has been in close proximity to military and intelligence installations on the west coast of Australia.”
He said it was without precedent for a Chinese warship to venture so far south and that authorities were monitoring the ship closely with planes and through other surveillance techniques.
Australia is in the midst of an election campaign, but Dutton said that had not influenced his decision to go public. Dutton said he wanted to be open and honest about the situation.
“I think it is an aggressive act, and I think particularly because it has come so far south,” he said.
Australia has a number of military facilities on its west coast, including the Exmouth base which provides support to submarines from Australia and the United States.
The Australian Defence Force identified the ship as a Dongdiao Class Auxiliary Intelligence ship called the Haiwangxing.
“Australia respects the right of all states to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and airspace, just as we expect others to respect our right to do the same,” the Defence Force said in a statement. “Defence will continue to monitor the ship’s operation in our maritime approaches.”
In February, Australia accused China of “dangerous and reckless” behaviour after a Chinese ship shone a laser at one of its surveillance planes. Beijing denied the allegation.
Last year, Australia said it had monitored Chinese spy ships on two separate occasions – travelling through its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but not in Australian territorial waters.
One ship was discovered monitoring the Talisman Sabre joint exercises between Australia, the United States and other allies in July, while the other entered the EEZ near Darwin in the north in August, before sailing down the eastern coast to Sydney and on to New Zealand, according to the defence ministry.
Under international law, ships can sail freely in international waters, including any country’s EEZ, which extend 200 nautical miles (370km) from the coast.
Relations between Australia and China have deteriorated in recent years, amid spats over trade, alleged rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and Canberra’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
In September, Australia, the US and the United Kingdom announced the new AUKUS security pact, widely seen as an attempt to shore up regional military muscle in the face of China’s growing presence. China says AUKUS is a danger to world peace.