In this Thursday, April 19, 2018, photo, Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Toowoomba is docked at Saigon port in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was one of the three Australian Navy ships to make four-day port call in Vietnam. Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the Australian navy has a "perfect right" to traverse the South China Sea after a media report Friday that the Chinese navy had challenged three Australian warships in the hotly contested waterway. (The Anh/Vietnam News Agency via AP)
HMAS Toowoomba was one of three Australian navy vessels that was warned by China for traversing the South China Sea, according to Australian media © AP

China’s navy issued a warning to Australian naval vessels sailing through the South China Sea this week, marking the latest incidence of heightened maritime tension in the disputed region, according to Australian media.

Citing government sources, Australia’s national broadcaster on Friday described the challenge as “polite but robust”, adding that it occurred during a routine passage of naval vessels from the Philippines to Vietnam.

It was unclear where or under what circumstances the challenge occurred, but it appeared to have been a verbal radio call warning the vessels to stay out of waters that China claims — a claim that other countries in the region dispute.

China’s defence ministry confirmed that an exchange occurred on April 15, and that “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 ministry said.

The ABC said Australia’s department of defence refused to discuss details of the interactions between the Australian warships and the Chinese military.

“The decision to leak this to the media appears to have been intended to make a point,” said Euan Graham, director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a think-tank.

In a statement, Australia’s military confirmed that two warships, HMAS Anzac and HMAS Success, travelled through the South China Sea after leaving Subic Bay in the Philippines, while HMAS Toowoomba traversed the sea after departing from Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia.

“The Australian Defence Force has maintained a robust programme of international engagement with countries in and around the South China Sea for decades,” the department told the ABC.

Diplomatic relations between China and Australia have become strained after Canberra proposed a crackdown on Chinese government influence in the country.

South China Sea map

Canberra is proposing to ban foreign political donations and target covert, deceptive and threatening actions by foreign groups and individuals in response to alleged interference by the Chinese Communist party in the country’s internal affairs and in Chinese diaspora communities.

China, which is Australia’s largest trading partner, has criticised the proposed crackdown on foreign influence, warning that media reports were filled with “cold war mentality and ideological bias” that reflected a “typical anti-China hysteria”.

Christopher Pyne, Australia’s defence minister, downplayed this week’s naval incident, telling the ABC: “I think ‘confrontation’ is somewhat of a tabloid-style description of what goes on in the South China Sea very regularly.”

However, the challenge was unusual in that the Australian navy has not been known to engage in “Freedom of Navigation Operations” that deliberately sail within the 12 nautical miles of islands and features claimed by China in the contested Sea.

“Fonops” are performed every few months by US naval vessels in the South China Sea and anger Beijing.

It would be unusual, but not unprecedented, for the Chinese military to challenge other navies that enter the sea but stay clear of Chinese claimed islands.

The incident comes amid a rise in maritime tension in the sea, and between China and its neighbours.

On Wednesday, China held live fire naval exercises in the sensitive Taiwan Strait.

The announcement of the live fire drill last week, meanwhile, followed a naval exercise by China and a speech by President Xi Jinping from the deck of a destroyer stressing the need for China to build the world’s leading naval force. This “has never been more pressing than today”, Mr Xi said on the deck of the destroyer Changsha.

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju

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