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Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Hercules aircraft departs RAAF Base Richmond, New South Wales

Chinese laser incident feeds into national security debate

Tensions between Australia and China have increased further, after the Chinese shone a laser at a RAAF surveillance aircraft that was observing Chinese naval activity in Australia’s exclusive economic zone.

The incident comes as the government is set on ramping up the national security debate – despite pushback from some in the intelligence community – claiming an Albanese government would be soft on China.

Anthony Albanese on Sunday ensured Labor’s reaction to the incident was bipartisan, condemning it in the strongest terms.

Scott Morrison said the incident, which happened on Thursday, was an “act of intimidation”, unprovoked and unwarranted as well as irresponsible and dangerous.

Lasers can disable aircraft and blind crew members.

The Prime Minister told a news conference Australia would be “making our views very, very clear to the Chinese government”. Sources said later Australia had raised strong concerns in Canberra and Beijing through defence and diplomatic channels.

Albanese said China’s action was “an outrageous act of aggression that should be condemned”.

“The Australian government should be making the strongest possible statement about what is a reckless act,” he added.

Morrison said the incident, in the Arafura Sea, “only strengthens my resolve to ensure we keep going down the path of boosting Australia’s resilience, taking this issue as seriously as you possibly can take it, as we have always done.

"It has been our government that has stood up to these threats and coercion over many years now. We’ve shown that resolve, we’ve shown that strength.

"And we’ve done it in the face of criticism, including here in our own country from those who think an appeasement path should be taken.

"I won’t be intimidated by it. And the appeasement path is not something my government will ever go down.”

The shadow ministers for foreign affairs and defence, Penny Wong and Brendan O'Connor respectively, said Labor was seeking a detailed briefing from the Defence Department.

“These are not the actions of a responsible power,” they said in a joint statement. “It is consistent with Beijing’s growing regional aggression.

"China must understand that such action will only engender further mistrust.”

They stressed “support for our defence force is bipartisan and unwavering. On issues of national security, the focus should remain solely on Australia’s national interest and not political interests.”

The Saturday Defence statement said that on February 17, “a P-8A Poseidon detected a laser illuminating the aircraft while in flight over Australia’s northern approaches.

"The laser was detected as emanating from a People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) vessel. Illumination of the aircraft by the Chinese vessel is a serious safety incident.”

The vessel, with a second PLA-N ship, was sailing east through the Arafura Sea when the incident happened.

Read more: Explainer: what was the Chinese laser attack about and why does it matter?

Defence said such acts had “the potential to endanger lives. We strongly condemn unprofessional and unsafe military conduct”.

Such acts were “not in keeping with the standards we expect of professional militaries.”

Defence said the two ships had gone through the Torres Strait and were in the Coral Sea.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton said it was important to understand this was a military grade laser – not a sort of laser “you would see from time to time that […] kids might have or a pointer somewhere”.

Australia was right to call out this sort of behaviour, Dutton said. “There’s a lot of aggression going on by China at the moment.”

“Like in any circumstance, you can’t deal with a bully in the schoolyard or a workplace from a position of weakness. You need to stand up and to push back on that aggression”.

Morrison said China would “have to explain their own actions”.

That was “not just important for Australia, but I think all around the region this explanation should be provided as to why a military vessel, a naval vessel, in Australia’s exclusive economic zone, would undertake such an act, such a dangerous act in relation to Australian surveillance aircraft”.

The aircraft had been “doing their job, being where they have every right to be. And that act of intimidation is not just a message that I suppose they’re trying to send to Australia, a message that we will respond to.

"But it is a sign of the sort of threats and intimidation that can occur to any country in our region. And that’s why we need to band together.”

Australia’s exclusive economic zone extends from 12 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles from its coastline. Within the zone Australia has sovereign rights to explore, use, conserve and manage its natural resources.

On Ukraine, Morrison said Australia would work with its partners on a response if the Russians went ahead and invaded, making it clear a response would involve new sanctions.

“There’s never been any contemplation of Australian troops being deployed,” he said.

Meanwhile the Liberal chairman of the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security James Paterson said all sides of politics should heed the warning of ASIO’s head Mike Burgess, who last week made it clear he was unhappy with ASIO being dragged into the political debate.

“We should [all] be careful in referring to classified information,” Paterson told the ABC.

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