South China Sea: Australian warships encounter Chinese navy in disputed waters

South China Sea: Australian warships encounter Chinese navy in disputed waters

  • Canberra downplays the ‘unplanned interactions’ amid ongoing diplomatic tensions between two countries

Australian warships have encountered China’s navy in the disputed South China Sea at a time of heightened diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

The Australian government has played down the encounter – believed to have occurred last week – saying on Thursday that “all interactions with foreign warships throughout the deployment were conducted in a safe and professional manner”.

The ABC first reported that Australian warships had encountered the Chinese navy during a voyage that included travel close to the Spratly Islands, although it was believed the Australian ships did not go within 12 nautical miles of the contested islands.

A defence spokesperson confirmed that five Australian warships – HMAS Canberra, Hobart, Stuart, Arunta and Sirius – “transited the South China Sea independently” from 14-18 July, including near the Spratly Islands. They were bound for Hawaii to join a US-led military exercise known as Rimpac.

The spokesperson said all interactions with foreign warships were handled safely and professionally “as we would expect in response to vessels operating in international waters in accordance with international law”.

There were “routine and professional naval communications” and “no confrontation”, the spokesperson added.

News of the encounter comes after the Trump administration toughened up its position against China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, prompting Beijing to label the US a “troublemaker” that was making “completely unjustified” claims that China was bullying smaller countries in the region.

Diplomatic tensions between China and Australia have also been rising, driven by a dispute over Canberra’s call for a Covid-19 inquiry, along with Beijing’s imposition of tariffs on Australian barley and the disagreement over the new national security law in Hong Hong.