SYDNEY - A Chinese navy vessel directed a laser at an Australian military aircraft in flight over Australia's northern approaches, illuminating the plane and potentially endangering lives, Australia's defence said on Saturday.

A P-8A Poseidon - a maritime patrol aircraft - detected a laser emanating from a People's Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) vessel, the Defence Department said in a statement.

"Illumination of the aircraft by the Chinese vessel is a serious safety incident," the department said. "Acts like this have the potential to endanger lives. We strongly condemn unprofessional and unsafe military conduct."

The Chinese vessel was sailing east with another PLA-N ship through the Arafura Sea at the time of the incident, the department said. The sea lies between the north coast of Australia and the south coast of New Guinea.

The defence department said that both ships have since transited through the Torres Strait and were in the Coral Sea.

Relations between Australia and China, its top trade partner, soured after Canberra banned Huawei Technologies from its 5G broadband network in 2018, toughened laws against foreign political interference, and urged an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

In 2019, Chinese maritime militia vessels initiated a series of laser attacks on Australian pilots while flying over the South China Sea, according to a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore) ((;))