Australian warships were challenged by the Chinese military in the disputed South China Sea earlier this month, the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) reported yesterday, citing Australian defense officials.
The Australian Department of Defence confirmed that three ships had recently traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, but declined to comment on “operational details related to ships transiting the South China Sea.”
The ABC quoted one department official as saying that the exchanges with the Chinese navy were polite, but “robust.”
“The Australian Defence Force has maintained a robust program of international engagement with countries in and around the South China Sea for decades,” the department said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.
China this week completed a massive military drill in the South China Sea, where its claims are hotly disputed by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, also declined to confirm the interaction between the Australian warships and the Chinese military, Fairfax media reported.
“As they have done for many decades, Australian vessels and aircraft will continue to exercise rights under international law to freedom of navigation and overflight, including in the South China Sea,” the department said.
China’s construction of islands and military facilities in the South China Sea, through which about US$3 trillion in trade passes annually, has sparked concerns Beijing is seeking to restrict free movement and extend its strategic reach.
The US has conducted “freedom of navigation patrols” through the South China Sea, stoking tensions with China, which has said it will protect its sovereignty.
The Royal Australian Navy vessels HMAS Anzac, HMAS Toowoomba and HMAS Success are on a three-month deployment in Southeast Asia that are to involve exercises with a number of countries in the region, the department said in a separate statement on Tuesday.
The Toowoomba sailed to Vietnam from Malaysia, while the other Australian ships went through the South China Sea from Subic Bay in the Philippines.
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