By Colin Packham and Byron Kaye

CANBERRA (Reuters) – China’s “alarming” actions do not match its rhetoric on promoting peace and prosperity in the region, Australia’s Defense Minister said on Friday after a navy vessel Chinese has been spotted sailing in the country’s exclusive economic zone.

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

“We are all aware of the Chinese government’s frequent statements that it is committed to peace, cooperation and development,” Dutton said in a speech in Canberra.

“And yet we are witnessing a significant disconnect between words and actions. We have observed very closely the Chinese government engaging in increasingly alarming activities.”

Political cartoons about world leaders

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

“It is inconceivable that Sino-Australian relations will gain momentum (…) if the Australian government bases its national strategy on such a visionless analysis and an outdated mentality,” he said in a statement.

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

China responded by cutting ministerial contacts and imposing high tariffs on Australia’s exports of wine, barley, beef, coal and seafood, thus canceling a 2015 free trade agreement. L Australia and its ally the United States have called the move “economic coercion.”

The latest beard swap came as Australia confirmed it had monitored a Chinese intelligence vessel sailing inside Australia’s exclusive economic zone in August but not in Australian territorial waters.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the ship – the second of its kind monitored off the Australian coast in as many months – was traveling legally.

“But don’t think for a second that we weren’t watching them, because they were looking to watch us,” Morrison told reporters in Adelaide.

“What this shows is that now no one can be complacent about the situation in the Indo-Pacific.”

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

(Reporting by Colin Packham and Byron Kaye; editing by Stephen Coates)

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