China and Australian Warships Face Off in Disputed Waters

Three Australian warships recently faced off the Chinese Navy while sailing through the South China Sea on their way to Vietnam, an incident contributing to rising tensions between the two countries.

The encounter between the Australians and Chinese vessels was first reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Friday, quoting an unnamed defense official describing the exchanges as polite, but "robust."

The three warships sailed through the South China Sea last weekend on their way to Ho Chi Minh City as part of a goodwill visit to Vietnam. HMAS Anzac and HMAS Success departed from the Philippines, while HMAS Toowoomba was sailing from Malaysia, the Australia defense ministry confirmed to the broadcaster while refusing to discuss the details of the interaction with the Chinese Navy.

"The Australian Defense Force has maintained a robust program of international engagement with countries in and around the South China Sea for decades," the department told ABC.

Australian navy personnel march past their HMAS Perth Anzac class frigate ahead of the IMDEX Asia maritime defense exhibition at Changi Naval Base, in Singapore, on May 18, 2015. The HMAS Anzac was one of three warships “challenged” by the Chinese navy in April. Edgar Su/Reuters

The Chinese Defense Ministry confirmed the interaction with the Australian vessels, but they said the exchange was conducted in a "professional" manner, according to a statement.

"On April 15, Chinese naval ships encountered Australian warships in the South China Sea," the statement said. "When communicating with the Australian ships, the Chinese ships used professional language, and their operations were professional and safe in accordance with law and regulations."

China claims large parts of the South China Sea, which are disputed by a number of Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Beijing has recently built several artificial islands in the contested waters to back its territorial claims.

During a meeting of Commonwealth leaders in London, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not comment on the encounter but defended his country's navigation rights in the South China Sea.

"All I can say to you is we maintain and practice the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world," he said, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. "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."

China's ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, recently expressed dissatisfaction with a "growing lack of mutual trust," which could have "some undesirable impact" on the two countries' ties in an interview to The Australian published on Thursday.

While China is its biggest trade partner, Australia is unnerved by the country's expanding influence in its traditional sphere of interest. In January, Australia decided to finance the construction of an underwater internet cable from the Solomon Islands to Sydney to avoid a Chinese company's involvement in the project due to security concerns.

Earlier this month, Australia's Fairfax media reported on alleged Chinese plans to build a military base on the Pacific island of Vanuatu, a traditional Australian ally, forcing all three parties involved to strongly deny the reports. "We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbors of ours," Turnbull said commenting on the reports, quoted in Reuters.