A refusal to say whether he raised a navy sonar incident with China has Peter Dutton piling the pressure on Anthony Albanese.
The Opposition Leader dialled up his attack over the maritime altercation that occurred off Japan’s coast last Tuesday which injured one Australian diver.
“If the Prime Minister didn’t raise this issue with President Xi (Jinping), he should be upfront and open and honest with the Australian public,” he told reporters on Tuesday morning.
“He’s talking out of both sides of his mouth. Did he raise the issue? Or he didn’t?
“If he didn’t, he’s made a catastrophic mistake and he needs to apologise for it.
“If he did raise it, he needs to come up with a proper explanation as to why he continues to talk in riddles.”
The Prime Minister has refused to say whether he raised the matter specifically during informal discussions with Mr Xi on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco.
“The consequences of these events are that they do damage to the relationship, and this certainly is an event that does damage and we’ve made that very clear to China,” Mr Albanese told Sky News.
He said Australia had raised its “strong objections” to China about the incident, which Mr Albanese said was “dangerous” and “reckless”.
Over the weekend, Australia accused China of “unsafe and unprofessional” conduct at sea when divers from the HMAS Toowoomba were injured by sonar pulses emitted from a Chinese warship.
The navy was conducting an operation in Japan’s exclusive economic zone last Tuesday when fishing nets became entangled around its propellers.
Despite the vessel notifying a People’s Liberation Army-Navy warship of the operation to clear the nets, and requesting the destroyer keep clear, it approached at a close range.
Soon after, it operated its hull-mounted sonar in a way that posed a risk to the safety of the Australian divers who were forced to exit the water.
Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian on Monday called Australia’s claims “completely untrue”, and said Beijing had made “solemn representations to the Australian side”.
He said the Chinese warship CNS Ningbo was “tracking, monitoring, identifying and verifying in accordance with the law and regulations”.
“We urge the Australian side to respect the facts, stop making reckless and irresponsible accusations against China, do more to build up mutual trust between the two sides, and create a positive atmosphere for the sound development of relations between the two countries and two militaries,” Mr Wu said.
Mr Dutton described Beijing’s response as “propaganda”.
Goodness! It’s getting crowded in the Great Hall of the People. pic.twitter.com/rrTS4UI7QN
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The incident came just weeks after Mr Albanese made significant inroads in stabilising the fraught relationship between China and Australia, when he became the first Prime Minister to visit Beijing in seven years.
But while the trading and diplomatic relationship appears to be on the road to recovery, questions around security continue.
Mr Dutton said while Australia could acknowledge the differences between the two nations and want a strong trading relationship, it shouldn’t come at our expense.
“That doesn’t mean that our Prime Minister has to back-pedal or soft-pedal,” he said.
“I just don’t understand why the Prime Minister continues to dig himself a hole.”