MELBOURNE • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asserted his country's right to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea after a media report said three Australian navy warships had been challenged by Chinese forces.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp said the People's Liberation Army, conducting its largest ever naval exercises in the region earlier this month, challenged the warships as they were transiting toward Vietnam for a goodwill visit.
It cited one official saying the exchanges with the Chinese navy were polite but "robust".
China's Defence Ministry yesterday confirmed the "encounter" happened on Sunday but said the reports in Australian media "did not accord with the facts". It said China acted professionally and lawfully.
"The Chinese side's ships used professional language to communicate with the Australian side, and their operations were lawful, in compliance, professional and safe," its statement said.
China's territorial claims in the South China Sea are hotly disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Australian Defence Department confirmed that three ships had recently travelled to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam but declined to comment on "operational details related to ships transiting the South China Sea".
It said its forces had "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," it said.
Mr Turnbull, in London for a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, declined on Thursday to confirm the interaction between the Australian warships and the Chinese military, Fairfax media reported. But he said Australia had the "perfect right" to sail through the contested waterway.
"We maintain and practise the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world. In this context, you're talking about naval vessels on the world's oceans, including the South China Sea, as is our perfect right in accordance with international law," he said.
China's construction of islands and military facilities in the South China Sea, through which some US$3 trillion (S$3.9 trillion) in trade passes annually, has sparked concern it is seeking to restrict free movement and extend its strategic reach.
The United States has conducted "freedom of navigation patrols" through the South China Sea, stoking tension with China which says it will protect its sovereignty. Australia is a staunch US ally.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing yesterday that China's consistent position was to support and actively safeguard the right of all countries to have freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, in accordance with international law.
"If Australia is referring to freedom of navigation in accordance with international laws, there is no problem whatsoever," she said in Beijing. "But if Australia has other motives, we hope it can see the trend in the South China Sea is stable and improving, and work together with China and other neighbouring countries for the peace and stability of the region."
Australia's bid to maintain strong economic ties with China, its largest trading partner, while challenging its militarisation of the South China Sea has become an increasingly fraught balancing act.
Mr Turnbull last week said tensions with Beijing remained high, four months after a spat over Chinese meddling in domestic political affairs prompted him to push for new legislation to curtail foreign interference. Australian navy ships Anzac, Toowoomba and Success are on a three-month deployment in South-east Asia, which will involve exercises with a number of countries in the region, the Australian Defence Department said.
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.