Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is insisting on his country’s “perfect right” to sail through the South China Sea following a “robust” exchange with the Chinese navy.
Mr Turnbull the right to freedom of navigation throughout all the world’s oceans, including the disputed waters that are also known as the West Philippine Sea.
He was speaking after ABC reported that three Royal Australian Navy vessels were “challenged” by Chinese forces when sailing through the region earlier this month.
Mr Turnbull did not confirm or deny the event but declared that Australia had the right to send its navy through the international waters.
The Australian Defence Department confirmed that three ships had recently traveled to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam but declined to comment on “operational details related to ships transiting the South China Sea”.
The ABC cited one official saying the exchanges with the Chinese navy were polite but “robust”.
“The Australian Defence Force has maintained a robust programme of international engagement with countries in and around the South China Sea for decades.
“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 Defence Department said.
However, China’s Defence Ministry said that reports of the encounter in Australian media “did not accord with the facts”.
“The Chinese side’s ships used professional language to communicate with the Australian side, and their operations were lawful, in compliance, professional and safe,” it said.
China recently completed a massive military drill in the South China Sea, where its territorial claims are disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China’s construction of islands and military facilities in the South China Sea — through which some $3 trillion in trade passes every year — has sparked concerns that Beijing could restrict free movement.
The United States has conducted numerous “freedom of navigation patrols” through the waters, provoking angry reactions from China.
The Australian navy ships Anzac, Toowoomba and Success are on a three-month deployment in Southeast Asia.
The Toowoomba sailed to Vietnam from Malaysia, while the other two Australian warships went through the South China Sea from Subic Bay in the Philippines.