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Former prime minister Kevin Rudd says the actions of the Chinese navy were “unacceptable” when its use of sonar injured Australian navy divers as he dismissed calls for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to say whether he raised the incident with President Xi Jinping at the APEC summit last week.

Rudd, now Australia’s ambassador to the United States, said the issue of whether Albanese and Xi personally discussed the issue as “a complete distraction”.

Kevin Rudd has defended the federal government’s handling of the incident.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“This is a complete distraction from the central question which is China through its actions, through the PLA Navy, engaged in unsafe practices against the Royal Australian Navy,” he told ABC Radio National on Monday morning.

“The actions by the Chinese People’s Liberation navy against the HMAS Toowoomba were unacceptable by any international standards.”

Rudd defended the federal government’s handling of the incident, saying Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles had made that “absolutely clear” to the Chinese authorities.

“The bottom line is these communications occurred between the Australian government through the … acting prime minister [Richard Marles], who is also the defence minister.”

Two divers from HMAS Toowoomba suffered minor ear damage involving a People’s Liberation Army-Navy destroyer in an incident last Tuesday, several days before Albanese’s meeting with Xi at the APEC summit.

Opposition members, including home affairs spokesman James Paterson and defence spokesman Andrew Hastie, have demanded to know if Albanese raised the incident with Xi when the pair met.

“[Albanese has] boasted about the time that he’s spent with Xi Jinping and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi while he was there, but did he raise this question? Well, he hasn’t said so, and if he’s not saying so, I fear the answer is he didn’t,” Paterson told 2GB on Monday.

Hastie said it was unacceptable if Albanese did not raise the sonar incident with China’s leaders at APEC.

“He should have petitioned them and asked for an apology,” he said on ABC radio.

Sonar’s purpose is for ships to navigate waters and identify obstacles, but when navy divers are in operation nearby ships are warned.

China’s act risks undermining the relationship Albanese has been working to strengthen over the weeks, which international security expert Professor John Blaxland says gives the government “a sense of reality”.

“While there is nothing in it for Australia to go tit-for-tat … what’s happening substantively is the talk is not matching the walk,” he said.

“[Australia needs] to be very clear-eyed about what our interests are and about how to manage those expectations and interests … I think the prime minister did the right thing, I think it was right to delegate the task to the deputy prime minister, [Albanese] had higher order priorities to manage.”

Blaxland said it would be hard to prove what motivated China to use sonar, but there was a “strong correlation” with Australia’s latest treaty agreement with Tuvalu allowing 280 people from the Pacific nation to migrate to Australia each year, escaping the threat of climate change.

“There’s a strong corelation between the kinds of decisions that China in Beijing would make about sending a message to Australia … doing something that’s intimidatory, and that’s exactly what they’ve done, and to my mind that is exactly the message that they were sending,” he said.

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