Australia defends right to sail in international waters after Chinese challenge in South China Sea

Prime minister says navy has ‘perfect right’ to traverse the waterway

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2018, 12:06pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2018, 11:38pm

Australia’s prime minister said his country’s navy has a “perfect right” to traverse the South China Sea after a media report on Friday that the Chinese navy had confronted three Australian warships in the hotly contested waterway.

The Chinese “challenged” two Australian frigates and an oil replenishment ship this month as the vessels were sailing to Vietnam, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported, citing anonymous defence officials.

It is not clear what took place during the encounter while China was conducting its largest ever naval exercises in the region.

But a statement from China’s defence ministry on Thursday said Chinese military officers had communicated with their Australian counterparts using “professional language”, and the operation was legal and safe.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying meanwhile said in a daily press briefing that Australia should work with China to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea.

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Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not comment on the specific incident when questioned by reporters in London.

“We maintain and practice the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world 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,” Turnbull said.

The defence department said it did not provide operational details related to ships transiting the South China Sea.

But it confirmed the three warships had arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Thursday. They are making a three-day goodwill visit to Vietnam.

Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defence Association, a security policy think tank, said the first aspect of such a challenge was usually a radio warning that the Australians were in Chinese territorial waters and a demand for identification. The Australians would have replied that they were in international waters.

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The next levels of challenge involve sending an aircraft and ship to investigate.

“It just escalates. Eventually if they’re in your territorial waters and they’re not meant to be there, you might fire a shot across their bows – but no one has done that for years, apart from the North Koreans,” James said.

Xu Liping, a senior researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that as a key US ally, Australia was also a major player in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’s growing clout in the region.

But Xu said that as economic relations between the two countries remained stable, Canberra would want to avoid a full-scale confrontation with Beijing, which he said could “do more harm than good to Australia”.

“Unlike semiconductors from the US, the energy products and minerals that are imported from Australia could be bought from elsewhere,” Xu said. “[Australia’s] freedom of navigation is not under threat, but without economic cooperation from China, any government could face a crisis.”