© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Australian Defense Secretary Peter Dutton speaks with Australian Secretary of State Marise Payne, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (not pictured) at the State Department during a press conference

By Colin Packham and Byron Kaye

CANBERRA (Reuters) – China’s “alarming” actions are inconsistent with its rhetoric about promoting peace and prosperity in the region, the Australian defense minister said Friday after a Chinese naval ship was tracked through the country’s exclusive economic zone.

Defense Secretary Peter Dutton cited China’s militarization of the South China Sea, recent aggression against Taiwan and the introduction of a national security law in Hong Kong as examples of China’s actions at odds with its rhetoric.

“We are all familiar with the frequent claims made by the Chinese government that they are committed to peace, cooperation and development,” Dutton said in a speech in Canberra.

“And yet we witness a clear discrepancy between words and deeds. We have watched very closely as the Chinese government has engaged in increasingly alarming activities.”

The Chinese Embassy in Canberra said Dutton had distorted China’s foreign policy, misled the Australian people and “fueled conflict and division between peoples and nations.”

“It is inconceivable that China-Australia relations will develop well … when the Australian government bases its national strategy on such visionless analysis and an outdated mentality,” said a statement.

Relations between Australia and its largest export market bottomed out in 2020 when Canberra backed a United Nations investigation into the origins of COVID-19, which was first recorded in China.

China responded by severing ministerial contacts and imposing high tariffs on Australian exports of wine, barley, beef, coal and seafood, effectively nullifying a 2015 free trade agreement. Australia and its ally the United States branded the move as an “economic constraint”.

The latest barbed exchange came when Australia confirmed it had been monitoring a Chinese intelligence vessel sailing in Australia’s exclusive economic zone but not in Australian territorial waters in August.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the ship – the second of its type to be monitored off the Australian coast in as many months – was legal.

“But don’t think for a second that we weren’t watching them because they wanted to keep an eye on us,” Morrison told reporters in Adelaide.

“What it shows is that now nobody can be complacent about the situation in the Indo-Pacific.”

In September, a new security pact between Australia, the United States and Britain called AUKUS was widely viewed as an attempt to bolster regional military power in the face of China’s growing presence. China called AUCUS a threat to world peace.

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