Australia urges 'full investigation' into China naval laser incident, Beijing defends actions

SYDNEY, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Australia's prime minister said on Monday a Chinese naval vessel that pointed a laser at an Australian military aircraft was so close to Australia's coast that it could have been seen from the shore, and urged a full Chinese investigation.

Scott Morrison told media his government had not received an explanation from China over the incident last Thursday, which Australia considered "dangerous and reckless".

China said Australia's version of events did "not square up with facts" and that Australia had dropped a Sonobuoy, which can help detect submarines, near Chinese ships. The Australian defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The Chinese navy vessel directed a military-grade laser at an Australian military aircraft over Australia's northern approaches, illuminating the plane and potentially endangering lives, Australia said on Saturday. read more Such a laser is normally pointed to designate a target ahead of the discharging of a weapon.

The P-8A Poseidon - a maritime patrol aircraft - detected a laser emanating from a People's Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) vessel, the Defence Department said, releasing photographs of two Chinese vessels sailing close to Australia's north coast.

A Chinese guided missile destroyer and an amphibious transport dock were sailing east through the Arafura Sea between New Guinea and Australia at the time of the incident, and later passed through the narrow Torres Strait.

"It's possible people could even see the vessel from our mainland, potentially," Morrison told reporters in Tasmania on Monday.

Australia had called through diplomatic and defence channels for "a full investigation into this event", he said.

He compared the incident to a hypothetical situation of an Australian frigate pointing a laser at Chinese surveillance aircraft in the Taiwan Strait, adding: "Could you imagine their reaction to that in Beijing?"

China's defence ministry defended the actions of its vessels, saying its vessels abided by international law and pinning any blame on Australia.

"The Australian P-8 anti-submarine patrol aircraft arrived in the airspace around our ship formation, and the nearest was only 4 kilometers away from our ship," defence ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said in a post on the ministry's official Weibo page published on Monday.

"From the photos taken by our ships, it can be seen that the Australian plane is very close to our ship and also drops Sonobuoys around our ship. Such malicious provocative behavior is very easy to lead to misunderstanding and misjudgment, posing a threat to the safety of ships and personnel on both sides," Tan added.

Two Chinese defence ministry stamped photos, which could not be verified, were attached with the Weibo post.

"We demand that the Australian side immediately stop similar provocative and dangerous actions and stop making groundless accusations and smears against the Chinese side, so as not to affect the overall situation of relations between the two countries and two militaries," Tan said.

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Reporting by Kirsty Needham, Emily Chow, Martin Quin Pollard; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel and Bernadette Baum

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