Safety of defence personnel 'utmost priority', Australia says after China warship incident

ASEAN Foreign Ministers' meeting in Jakarta
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The safety and wellbeing of Australian defence personnel is Canberra's "utmost priority" and Australia expects all countries to operate militaries in a safe and professional manner, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said on Tuesday.

Wong's comments came a week after an incident involving a Chinese warship and an Australian navy vessel in Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in which an Australian military diver was injured.

"We have raised our serious concerns with the Chinese authorities following what we regard as unsafe and unprofessional interaction with the PLA Navy destroyer," she said, reiterating Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's comments on Monday.

"These events occurred within Japan's EEZ and international waters and Australia's principled position is that we expect all countries, including ourselves, to operate militaries in a safe and professional manner," Wong said at a joint press conference with her Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in New Delhi.

HMAS Toowoomba - a long-range frigate - was conducting a diving operation on Nov. 14 to clear fishing nets from its propellers when the Chinese warship acted in a dangerous manner, Australia has said.

A People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA) destroyer approached HMAS Toowoomba, despite the Australian vessel notifying the Chinese warship of a diving operation, and operated its hull-mounted sonar in a manner that posed a safety risk, Australia has said.

Beijing has rejected the accusations as reckless and irresponsible and urged Canberra to respect the facts, in an incident which comes amid efforts by the two countries to improve relations.

The Chinese destroyer Ningbo monitored and identified HMAS Toowoomba, all while keeping a safe distance from it and did not carry out any activities that might affect the diving operations of the Australian side, Beijing has said.

Wong and Australia's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles held talks known as the "2+2 Dialogue" with their Indian counterparts on Monday to discuss their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and mutual concerns about China, among others.

India's relations with China have deteriorated since a 2020 border clash between their militaries in which 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese troops were killed.

Wong said Australia and India both have very substantive economic relationship with China, recognise China’s importance and place in the region, and will continue to engage with it.

Australia, she added, "will cooperate where we can, we will disagree where we must, and we will engage in our national interest".

(Reporting by YP Rajesh and Krishn Kaushik; Editing by Sharon Singleton)