Earlier this week, reports emerged in the Australian press that three Royal Australian Navy vessels en route to Vietnam for a three-day goodwill port call were involved in a confrontation with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea.
Per reports, two Anzac-class frigates, HMAS Anzac and HMAS Toowoomba, and one Durance-class replenishment ship HMAS Success received warnings from unspecified PLAN vessels in the disputed waters.
According to ABC, which first reported on the encounter, interactions between the Australian and Chinese sailors were polite, but “robust.”
It’s unclear precisely where the Australian vessels were at the time of their encounter with the Chinese ships. According to a statement given to ABC from the Australian Defense Department, the three Australian vessels had previously visited Subic Bay and were en route to Vietnam, putting them on a course to traverse the northern reaches of the Spratly Islands to their eventual destination of Ho Chi Minh City.
The vessels may have come near one of China’s artificial islands, but this is not clear from what’s so far been reported in the Australian press.
Nothing indicates that the Australian vessels were tasked with conducting a freedom of navigation operation near a China-occupied feature, but Beijing has grown sensitive to so-called presence operations by foreign navies, including the U.S. Navy, in recent months.
“The Australian Defence Force has maintained a robust programme of international engagement with countries in and around the South China Sea for decades,” the Australian Defense Department told ABC.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Defense released a statement contesting the facts of the encounter.
“On April 15 China’s naval vessels encountered Australian naval ships in the South China Sea. China’s ships used professional language to communicate with the Australian side. China’s operation is lawful and conforms to conventions. It is professional and safe,” the statement noted.
Asked about the reports on Friday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull provided little additional detail. “All I can say is we maintain and practice the right of freedom of navigation, and overflight, throughout the world,” he told reporters.
“And in this context we’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.”
Australia has seen a robust domestic debate on the extent to which its naval forces should support efforts by the United States and other states to assert freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea, where China maintains a capacious claim under its nine-dash line.
Canberra has conducted aerial and surface operations in the South China Sea, but has not joined the United States in joint freedom of navigation operations. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Navy has increased the frequency of these operations, drawing Chinese criticism.
This week’s encounter between the Australian and Chinese navies also comes shortly after the PLAN staged a massive fleet review in the South China Sea. Chinese President Xi Jinping surveyed as many as 48 warships and 76 fighters from the PLAN’s North, East, and South Sea Fleets.
In addition to China, five other regional states maintain claims in the South China Sea, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.