Morrison refutes China laser allegations

Andrew Brown |

Scott Morrison has refuted accusations from China that an Australian military aircraft, which was lasered by a Chinese warship, was flying too close to the vessel at the time and acted provocatively.

An Australian maritime patrol aircraft P-8A Poseidon detected a laser emanating from a PLA-Navy vessel in the Arafura Sea on February 17.

At the time of the incident the RAAF P-8 was about 7.7km from the PLA-N vessel and was flying at an altitude of 457 metres.

The closest the P-8 flew to the PLA-N vessel was 4km, the defence department confirmed on Tuesday.

The prime minister said China needed to explain its actions, saying the Chinese vessel was in Australia’s exclusive economic zone at the time.

“They need to explain that, not just to Australia, but this needs to be explained to the entire region, as to what they would be doing, undertaking such a reckless act,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Tasmania on Tuesday.

“There is no explanation that Australia has to give here, our surveillance planes have every right to be in our exclusive economic zone.”

While China’s foreign ministry said the action was a defensive measure due to the closeness of the Australian aircraft, Mr Morrison said the surveillance plane was exactly where it needed to be.

“They were doing their job, as they do every day, and we make no apology for where our surveillance aircraft are looking after and protecting Australians,” he said.

The Chinese defence ministry was also critical of the dropping of sonar buoys by the RAAF aircraft, which it described as “malicious and provocative”.

The Australian defence department said in a statement the use of “sonobuoys” for maritime surveillance was common practice.

“Sonobuoys are used to collect passive acoustic data on environmental activity as well as surface and sub-surface contacts,” the statement said.

“These buoys are a receiving buoy only and do not pose any hazard to shipping.”

The department said no sonobuoys were used prior to the Chinese vessel directing its laser at the P-8A aircraft.

“Some sonobuoys were used after the incident but were dropped in the water a significant distance ahead of the PLA-N vessel.”

Australia has now raised its concerns with the Chinese embassy in Canberra and senior diplomatic staff in Beijing have raised the matter with China’s foreign affairs and defence ministries.