Australia calls the presence of a Chinese spy ship off its coast an “act of aggression”

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said a Chinese intelligence ship had been detected off the coast of Western Australia in what he called an “act of aggression” by Beijing.

Australia had tracked the spy ship for the past week as it sailed near the Harold E Holt Naval Communications Station in Exmouth, which is used by Australian, US and allied submarines.

“I think it’s an act of aggression. I think of it mostly because it’s come so far south,” Dutton told a news conference.

“It has been in close proximity to military and intelligence installations on Australia’s west coast.”

Australia goes to national elections on May 21 and accusations about the threat to national security posed by China have been one of the main themes of the campaign.

Dutton questioned the “strange timing” of the ship’s presence given the election campaign.

Several Chinese navy vessels have been tracked off Australia’s northern and eastern coasts on several occasions in recent years.

In February, Beijing and Canberra blamed each other for an incident in which an Australian maritime patrol plane detected a laser aimed at it from a People’s Liberation Army Navy ship.

Australia released photos of two Chinese vessels involved in the incident sailing off its northern coast.

The Chinese embassy in Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Australia’s defense department said in a statement that the Dongdiao-class auxiliary intelligence ship, named Haiwangxing, steamed up the west coast, crossing Australia’s Economic Exclusion Zone on May 6 and coming within 50 nautical miles of the communications station on May 11.

Dutton said Australia had adopted the practice of informing the public of the presence of Chinese naval vessels.

(Reporting by Wayne Cole and Kirsty Needham; writing by Praveen Menon; editing by Himani Sarkar and Stephen Coates; translation by Flora Gómez)