Australian PM on laser incident: Plane in our waters had 'right' to watch China vessel

An Australian maritime patrol craft detected a laser emanating from a PLA Navy ship when it was observing two of the Chinese vessels sailing near Australia. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY(REUTERS) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said an Australian surveillance plane was doing its job when it was "put under threat" with a laser from a Chinese navy ship, rejecting Beijing's assertion the plane came too close.

The P-8A Poseidon - a maritime patrol aircraft - detected a laser emanating from a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel on Feb 17, and Australia released photographs of two Chinese vessels sailing close to its north coast.

Australia’s department of defence said on Tuesday that the aircraft dropped sonobuoys after the lasing incident, and that the surveillance devices aren’t a shipping hazard. 

"Our surveillance planes have every right to be in our exclusive economic zone and keeping a close eye on what people are up to," Mr Morrison told reporters on Tuesday (Feb 22).

"The fact they were put under threat is extremely disappointing," he added.

In Bejing, when asked about Mr Morrison’s comments and if China could confirm that a military-grade laser was used, the foreign ministry said Australia had used reconnaissance planes to take "provocative actions" against China on many occasions.  

"We firmly oppose this, and urge the Australian side to reflect on itself, not to spread false information, and not to deliberately create trouble," ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular briefing.

The Chinese guided missile destroyer and an amphibious transport dock were sailing east through the Arafura Sea between New Guinea and Australia, and later passed through the narrow Torres Strait, Australia's defence department says.

Beijing says the Chinese ships had a legal right to be in international waters, which Australia has not disputed.

China's defence ministry on Monday said the surveillance plane had dropped a sonobuoy, which can help detect submarines, near the Chinese ships, and had flown as close as 4 km from the convoy, which it said was "provocative and dangerous".

Australia's defence department on Tuesday said that the aircraft had acted in a safe manner and that the use of sonobuoys for maritime surveillance is common practice.  

"No sonobuoys were used prior to the PLA-N vessel directing its laser at the P-8A aircraft on 17 February. Some sonobuoys were used after the incident but were dropped in the water a significant distance ahead of the PLA-N vessel," it said.

The devices "collect passive acoustic data" on ships and submarines, it said.  

The aircraft was 7.7km from the Chinese naval vessel at the time of the lasing incident, it said, and the closest it flew was 3.9km, which Australia said was standard for a visual inspection of a vessel.

"Australia expects all foreign vessels entering its maritime zones to abide by international law, particularly the Unclos," the statement said, referring to the United Nations Convention of the Laws of the Sea.

On Tuesday Mr Morrison announced separately Australia would spend A$804 million (S$779 million) to buy drones and helicopters and set up mobile stations in Antarctica, because Australia needed to "keep watch" on the region.

He said that China did not share Australia's objectives in Antarctica, 42 per cent of which is claimed by Australia, and that Beijing wanted to exploit its resources.

"We need to keep eyes in Antarctica because there are others who have different objectives to us, and we need to make sure not just for Australia's interest, but for the world's interest, that we protect this incredible environment that we have responsibility for," he said.

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