This Thursday, April 1
CANBERRA, Australia – Australia's Prime Minister said his country had a "perfect right" to cross the South China Sea after a Chinese media attack on Friday struck three Australian warships on Friday
Chinese "challenged" two Australian frigates and an oil refilling vessel this month when the Australian ships sailed for Vietnam, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. citing anonymous defense officials.
It is unclear what happened during the encounter, while China carried out its largest marine exercises ever conducted in the region.
China's Defense Ministry defended its naval action and said the report "does not coincide with the facts"
On April 15, ships from the Chinese and Australian Navy "met in the South China Sea," it said in a statement , "The Chinese ships used a professional language to communicate with the Australian side, which was operated legally and safely in accordance with regulations," the statement said.
No details were given on what was communicated during the exchange or whether other actions took place
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has built several islands to strengthen its position in the waterway, where other governments have competing claims and which is one of the busiest sea routes in the world.
Australia resisted pressure from the United States, its main ally of defense, to challenge Chinese territorial areas that are not recognized by international law. US Navy ships regularly sail near facilities built in China, including military facilities that trigger protests from Beijing.
"We hold and practice the right to freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world and, in this context, refer to naval vessels on the world's oceans, including the South China Sea, as our perfect law is in accordance with international law," he said Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He did not comment on the specific incident when he was interviewed by reporters in London.
The Ministry of Defense stated that there are no operational details about ships in the South China Sea. But it confirmed that the three warships had arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Thursday. They are doing a three-day goodwill visit to Vietnam.
Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defense Association, a think tank on security policy, said the first aspect of such a challenge was usually a radio warning that the Australians were in Chinese territorial waters and a call for identification. The Australians replied that they were in international waters.
The next challenges are to send an aircraft and a ship for inspection.
"Just escalate, when they finally get into their territorial waters and should not be there, you could fire a shot over their bows – but nobody has done that for years, except the North Koreans," James said.
Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific forces, has invited Australia to launch joint naval patrols in the South China Sea, calling China "a destructive transnational power."
President Donald Trump has nominated the outspoken Chinese critic as the next US Ambassador to Australia.
Associated Press author Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, transmitted, rewritten or redistributed.