Australian warships travelling to Vietnam via the South China Sea was confronted by the Chinese military. The confrontation took place three days before the HMAS Anzac, HMAS Toowoomba and HMAS Success arrived for a goodwill mission in Ho Chi Minh City.
An official from the Australian Navy confirmed the confrontation with China’s People’s Liberation Army. The same official described the challenge as cordial but otherwise, “robust”.
For the past few years, China has been expanding its military capabilities throughout disputed islands in the South China Sea. Although their occupation of these islands was challenged by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, China has paid no heed to their claims and has continued to build military structures.
Case in point was the construction of military structures and an air strip in disputed islands located in the Western Philippine Sea. The Philippines, under the administration of former President Benigno S. Aquino III, filed and won an arbitration case over the islands at The Hague in 2015.
The United Nations quashed China’s historical claim of a “nine dash line” on the islands and awarded full custody of the islands to the Philippines.
However, under the new administration of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines essentially set aside the victory and allowed China to construct structures on the islands.
President Duterte has long been known to have ties with communists and pivoted the Philippines from the West and toward China.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull threw his support behind the Australian Navy:
“All I can say to you is Australia asserts and practices its right of freedom of navigation throughout the world’s oceans, including of course the South China Sea. As is our perfect right in accordance with international law.”
Australia’s defence department likewise confirmed the confrontation between the two military forces but would not give details on what had taken place:
“The Australian defence force has maintained a robust program of international engagement with countries in and around the South China Sea for decades. This includes bilateral and multilateral military exercises, port visits, maritime surveillance operations and ship transits.
“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.”
Countries are becoming increasingly concerned with China’s expansion of its military presence in the South China Sea because an estimated $3 Trillion worth of trade passes through these waters every year.
The United States has stated that it will conduct freedom of navigation patrols throughout the South China Sea which has increased tensions with China.