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.
The five Australian warships left Darwin on 5 July and have been taking part in drills with Japan and the United States in the Philippine Sea this week before heading to Hawaii for Rimpac.
Defence says the ADF vessels joined the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, which included the United States Navy’s guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam and guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin, and Japan’s Akizuki-class destroyer JS Teruzuki for joint activities in the Philippine Sea this week.
This week’s joint activities have included replenishment at sea, aviation operations, maritime manoeuvres and communications drills, according to a defence statement issued on Tuesday.
Captain Sakano Yusuke, commander of Japan’s Escort Division 4, said this week’s exercise would give the three countries “tactical and operational advantages and make our friendships stronger, in addition to our regular joint exercises with both like-minded navies”.
US Navy Captain Russ Caldwell, commanding officer USS Antietam, said the US was “fortunate to routinely operate alongside its allies across the Indo-Pacific and coordinated operations like these reinforce our mutual commitment to international maritime norms and promoting regional stability”.
Australia’s defence strategy update, released earlier this month, warned that the Covid-19 pandemic was sharpening aspects of competition between the US and China – and the Australian defence minister, Linda Reynolds, accused Beijing of taking some actions that had “unsettled the stability of our region”.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said last week that the world would “not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire” and that the US would “stand with the international community in defence of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty” in the region.
When asked last week about the implications for Australia, a defence spokesperson told Guardian Australia that ADF vessels and aircraft would “maintain our presence in the South China Sea and continue to exercise rights under international law, in accordance with our national interests” – but would not comment on future operations.
Scott Morrison, the prime minister, also said Australia would “continue to adopt a very supportive position of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea”.
On Wednesday it was revealed that an Australian defence contractor was listed among a range of victims of an alleged hacking operation by two Chinese nationals, according to an indictment unsealed by the US – prompting the Australian government to say it was concerned by the alleged intrusions and urging “all countries” not to breach their international commitments.
A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry later accused the US of “slandering China under the pretext of cyber security” and said it was actually America that had been “conducting cyber thefts of the largest scale around the world”.