Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused China on Monday of reckless conduct after an incident last week during which Canberra says Chinese navy vessels targeted an Australian military aircraft with a laser rangefinder.

The incident is the latest point of tension in the progressively worsening relationship between the two countries, particularly after Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and China retaliated by imposing tariffs on a number of Australian goods.

Chinese media earlier accused Australia of "throwing mud" at China, claiming the vessels were forced to take defensive countermeasures after the aircraft flew close to them in a reconnaissance mission.

Undated photo shows a Chinese navy vessel which the Australian Department of Defence says was involved in targeting an Australian military aircraft with a laser rangefinder. (Photo courtesy of Australian Department of Defence)(Kyodo)

The Australian Defense Department has confirmed that a P-8A patrol aircraft carrying out surveillance duties in the Arafura Sea north of Australia detected a laser pointed at the aircraft by a People's Liberation Army Navy vessel on Thursday.

"It was dangerous, it was reckless, and it was unprofessional for what should be a sophisticated navy," Morrison told reporters on Monday, demanding an explanation from Beijing.

Later in the day, the Chinese government brushed aside Morrison's accusation, saying the behavior of the Chinese ships was completely legal.

"We urge Australia to respect the legitimate rights of Chinese ships in accordance with international law and to stop maliciously spreading false information about China," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing in Beijing.

In an online report the same day, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, The Global Times, quoted military expert Song Zhongping as saying it was "almost certain" that the Australian aircraft had been conducting a "close-in reconnaissance" on the vessels.

Song told the tabloid that Australia failed to tell the public how close its aircraft flew to the Chinese ships, "so people could not tell if the Chinese vessels were forced to take defensive countermeasures."

It quoted experts as saying the reaction was "an attempt to throw mud at China when the PLA has been sending assistance to other countries in the region like Tonga and the Solomon Islands."

The action, which occurred in Australia's exclusive economic zone, put the lives of up to 10 defense force members in danger, and sparked further concern about China's growing influence in the region, according to The Australian newspaper.

But The Global Times downplayed the use of the laser, saying almost all modern warships are equipped with similar rangefinder devices to measure the distance between objects.

They are "also used for civilian purposes and are of little danger," the Chinese paper said, quoting an unnamed analyst.

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