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Australia calls presence of Chinese vessel off west coast ‘an act of aggression’

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Scott Morrison has said that the presence of a Chinese navy vessel off the west coast of Australia is “concerning”.

Though the vessel was not in Australian territorial waters, it was within 50 nautical miles of a sensitive defence facility, the prime minister said, adding: “It is clearly an intelligence ship and they are looking at us and we’re keeping a close eye on them.”

“I certainly don’t believe that when you take it together with the many other coercive acts and the many statements that have been made which have been attacking Australia’s national interests, you could describe it as an act of bridge building or friendship,” Mr Morrison added.

Australia has a number of military facilities, including the Exmouth base, on its west coast, where the Chinese navy vessel – identified as Dongdiao Class Auxiliary Intelligence ship called the Haiwangxing — was detected.

On Friday, defence minister Peter Dutton called it an act of aggression.

“I think particularly because it has come so far south,” Mr Dutton said at a news conference. “It has been in close proximity to military and intelligence installations on the west coast of Australia.”

“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 country’s defence department said in a statement. “Defence will continue to monitor the ship’s operation in our maritime approaches.”

Relations between the two countries have been strained in recent years, especially over China’s influence in Australia and the Pacific region, and most recently after Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands.

While the full details of the deal have not been disclosed, a draft copy suggests that the pact allows China to send police and military personnel to the Solomon Islands while also opening the door for Chinese warships to stop in port.

It has triggered worries of a possible Chinese naval base on the doorsteps of Australia and New Zealand.

Some senior Australian government lawmakers have suggested Beijing had timed the announcement of the Solomons pact during an election campaign to undermine the ruling coalition’s chances of retaining power in the May 21 poll.

Earlier this year, Beijing and Canberra had exchanged accusations over an incident in which the Australian side had said that one of its maritime patrol aircraft had detected a laser directed at it from a People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel.

Additional reporting by agencies

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