After a brief honeymoon, Australia and China are again at odds. The row comes mere weeks after Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made his “very successful” visit to China — the first by an Australian leader since 2016.
On November 14, an Australian frigate in international waters inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone stopped to let its divers untangle fishing nets from the vessel’s propellers. A Chinese destroyer approached and used its hull-mounted sonar “in a manner that posed a risk to the safety of the Australian divers,” according to a statement issued on November 18 by Australia’s defence minister.
Albanese said on November 20 that the Chinese destroyer’s actions, which injured the Australian divers, were “dangerous . . . unsafe and unprofessional." Beijing says Australia’s rundown of the event is inconsistent with the facts and that "relevant parties should stop making trouble in front of China's doorsteps.”
‘Does do damage’ to relationship: Albanese
Just two weeks prior, Albanese, who came to power in May 2022, was one of the stars of the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, with some attendees jostling for selfies with the leader and exclaiming, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!” Other diplomatic wins abounded: in October, Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist, was released after spending three years in a Chinese prison for allegedly breaking Chinese national security laws. Lei’s supporters described her imprisonment as a case of “arbitrary detention.”
Now Albanese, who said the navy incident “does do damage” to the relationship, is under fire for declining to confirm if he raised the issue directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting on November 17. But the bilateral relationship is far from doomed. Albanese said following his visit to China that Australia will “co-operate where we can with China, we'll disagree where we must, but we will engage in our national interest.” China’s actions suggest disagreements will continue to complicate the relationship.
Canada-China relations clouded by similar encounters
Canada has been on the receiving end of similar tactics for years. In June 2019, two Chinese fighter jets ‘buzzed’ a Canadian frigate and supply ship operating in international waters in the East China Sea, swooping as close as 300 metres to the vessels.
And just last month, a Chinese fighter jet shot flares in front of a Canadian military helicopter conducting freedom of navigation exercises in international waters in the South China Sea. Earlier that day, a Chinese aircraft conducted a pass “very near” to the Canadian helicopter, leading to “significant turbulence.” Canadian Defence Minister Bill Blair said the jets’ actions “were deemed to be significantly unsafe.”