MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australian warships were challenged earlier this month by the Chinese military in the disputed South China Sea, Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. on Friday, citing Australian defense officials.
The Australian Ministry of Defense confirmed that three ships had recently traveled to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, but declined to comment on "operational details regarding ships passing through the South China Sea."
The ABC quotes an official saying that the exchange with the Chinese Navy is polite but "robust".
"The Australian Defense Forces has maintained a robust program of international engagement with countries in and around the South China Sea for decades," the Department of Defense said in a statement to Reuters.
China has recently completed a massive military exercise in the South China Sea, which is heavily contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in London for the meeting of the Commonwealth leaders, also refused to confirm the interaction between the Australian warships and the Chinese military, Fairfax media reported.
"As has been the case for many decades, Australian ships and aircraft will continue to exercise the international rights to sea and overflight in the South China Sea," said the Department of Defense.
China's construction of islands and military facilities in the South China Sea, amounting to about $ 3 trillion annually, has raised concerns that Beijing wants to restrict free movement and expand its strategic reach.
The United States has carried out "freedom of maritime patrols" across the South China Sea, causing tensions with China, which claim it will protect its sovereignty.
The Australian Navy's ships, Anzac, Toowoomba, and Success, are stationed in Southeast Asia for three months, where they will be training with a number of countries in the region, the Defense Department said on April 1
Reporting by Sonali Paul; Arrangement by Michael Perry