SYDNEY (Reuters) – A Chinese intelligence vessel spotted off Australia’s west coast less than 50 nautical miles from a sensitive defense installation did not breach international maritime laws, Australia said on Saturday .
Australia has been tracking the spy ship over the past week as it passed Harold E Holt Naval Communications Station in Exmouth, Western Australia, which is used by Australian, US and allied submarines.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday that the Chinese navy vessel was not in Australian territorial waters but that its presence was “worrying”, amid an election campaign where China’s behavior in the region has been the center of concern.
The issue of a national security threat posed by China, including its growing influence in the Pacific, has been a major campaign theme for the May 21 general election.
Asked on Saturday whether the vessel’s conduct was a “red line”, Morrison said freedom of navigation was allowed worldwide and the vessel had not breached maritime laws.
“The international law of the sea has not been violated,” he told reporters during the election campaign in Melbourne. But he said the issue highlighted the challenges Australia faces from China “seeking to impose its will in the region”.
Opposition Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese said on Saturday he shared the government’s concerns about the ship and had asked for a briefing.
Defense Minister Peter Dutton said this week he viewed the ship’s move as “an act of aggression” for traveling so far south.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, asked about Dutton’s comments on Friday, said he was unaware of the specifics, but China has always respected international law and urged the Australian politicians to “refrain from fearmongering”.
The Chinese Embassy in Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
Relations between Australia and China, major trading partners, have recently been strained due to China’s growing influence in the Solomon Islands, after the small Pacific island nation signed a security pact with China. .
Chinese naval vessels have been tracked several times off the northern and eastern coasts of Australia in recent years. The same Chinese vessel monitored Australian Navy exercises with the US military off the east coast last year.
In February, China and Australia exchanged barbs over an incident in which Australia said one of its maritime patrol aircraft detected a laser aimed at it from an Army Navy ship popular liberation.