News that Russian ships were steaming towards Australia ahead of the G20 summit has been labelled a “stunt” by opposition leader, Bill Shorten.
“I think that this is a stunt. I don’t think we should play the Putin game of engaging in his stunts,” Mr Shorten told reporters.
“Ships sail around in international waters all the time. As far as I am concerned this is a distraction from families getting closure by finding out why was that plane (MH17) shot down, who knows what, who was involved in that terrible atrocity.”
The Australian defence department said late on Wednesday that it was monitoring the movement of a group of four Russian naval vessels which were “transiting through international waters to the north of Australia” in the Coral Sea, between the country’s east coast and the Solomon Islands.
The movement of the Russian vessels was “entirely consistent with provisions under international law for military vessels to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters,” a statement from the ADF read.
“Russian naval vessels have previously been deployed in conjunction with major international summits, such as the APEC meeting in Singapore in 2009.
“A warship from Russia’s Pacific fleet also accompanied former Russian president Medvedev’s visit to San Francisco in 2010.”
However, news of the deployment was immediately framed as provocative by Australian media and came on the same day that Prime Minister Tony Abbott met with President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing.
Some months ago, Abbott notoriously claimed he wanted to “shirt-front” the Russian leader over the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine, in which 298 people, including 38 Australian citizens and residents, were killed.
It is understood that when Abbott met with Putin at APEC he blamed Russia for the incident, demanding an apology and compensation. A day earlier, the pair were photographed together as part of the so-called ‘silly shirts’ assembly at APEC, but apparently avoided contact.
Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, sought to pour water on the Russian ships controversy, though.
“Russia is entitled, as any other country is entitled, to traverse international waters,” Bishop told reporters.
“So we have been aware of it for some time, we have been tracking it and as far as I know, they remain in international waters.
“Now the Australian navy, likewise, proceeds through international waters to our north and east and west. And so Russia is doing what navies do, that is, they traverse international waters.”
Bishop was then asked if the Russian naval deployment north-east of Australia was a show of force.
“Russia is a significant country, it has a significant navy,” she said.
“That’s like saying when the United States is in the Pacific, is it a show of force? Well it’s a significant country with a significant navy.
“When Australia heads up through the international waters in south-east Asia and north Asia, is that a show of force? Well, Australia is a significant country with a significant navy.”
IMAGE: File photo of Russian Navy ships (By O’SHI / Shutterstock.com)