Defense Minister Peter Dutton said the latest action was “completely unacceptable”.
“It can result in the blindness of the crew, can obviously result in damage to equipment,” Mr Dutton told Sky News.
“It’s military grade. It’s a very aggressive act. And that’s why it’s right that we call it out. ”
He confirmed that the Australian aircraft was in the area to keep an eye on the Chinese ship.
“They’re in our economic zone, so they’re in Australian waters. So you would expect that we would conduct surveillance flights – as they would do if our vessels are charting through the South China Sea or elsewhere closer to mainland China, ”Mr Dutton said.
“We want to know where those vessels are going, what activity they’re up to, particularly given that they’re coming down through our northern approaches across through the Torres Strait and then into the Coral Sea. That’s not a usual path, I’d say. ”
John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, said China had never used a laser this close to Australia’s shores, saying it had now set a “new bar”.
“It’s in Australia’s exclusive economic zone, it’s an unreasonable act – it’s actually an act of aggression,” he said. “This is not a laser pointer from high school. This is something that will burn your eyes out and will damage your electro-optical equipment. ”
Professor Blaxland said the action was a “threat to the aircraft, and it is the precursor to the firing of a kinetic weapon” such as a machine gun, cannon or missile.
“That’s what you do – you laser designate, then you engage. That’s the precursor signal of an attack, and it’s a microsecond away.
“So it’s a particularly hostile act, it’s a particularly hostile thing to do – quite adversarial and designed to intimidate just below the kinetic threshold.”
Opposition communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said it was “deeply concerning” and Labor would be asking for a briefing from Defense on the incident.
“And let’s be clear, this is not some juvenile aiming a laser at a commercial aircraft,” she said. “Unfortunately, it comes at a time when China’s presence and its actions are continuing to cause concern right across the region and globally as well.”
The incident came after a week of fierce political debate over Australia-China relations in which Mr Morrison accused Labor leader Anthony Albanese of being the “Chinese government pick at this election” and questioned the Opposition Leader’s national security credentials ahead of the looming election.
ASIO director-general Mike Burgess this week warned the politicization of national security was “not helpful”, while former ASIO and DFAT boss Dennis Richardson accused the Morrison government of attempting to create “artificial” differences between the Coalition and Labor on China policy and rejected suggestions the opposition had appeased China.
Mr Dutton said on Sunday he disagreed with Mr Burgess and Mr Richardson, saying there was a “big difference between the Coalition and Labor” when it came to handling China.
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