The situation in the South China Sea has gotten more complicated after Australian warships were “challenged” by the Chinese navy earlier this month. It is not clear what took place during the encounter. One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the interaction as polite, but “robust”.
Three Australian navy ships were en route to Vietnam sailing through the South China Sea when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chose to interact with them. The three ships, HMAS Anzac, HMAS Toowoomba, and HMAS Success, are now conducting a goodwill visit in Ho Chi Minh City.
The incident is believed to have occurred around the same time as China was holding its largest-ever naval parade on April 12. The naval parade involved 10,000 naval officers, 48 naval vessels, 76 fighter jets, submarines, and the nation’s only aircraft carrier. President Xi Jinping was on board one of the naval vessels, overseeing the parade.
The two countries have been sparring over China’s growing influence in the Pacific. Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not reveal any details of the interactions when questioned about the incident, although he did say that Australia has the right to sail in the South China Sea. Turnbull said, “All I can say to you is we maintain and practice the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world.”
The South China Sea is a highly contested region, with China, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines making territorial claims. It is a valuable shipping route, traversed by a quarter of global shipping, and some believe that it has more oil reserves than any other area on Earth outside of Saudi Arabia. The Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China, are claimed by no fewer than seven countries.
China has made extensive sovereignty claims on both the Spratlys and the Paracels, based largely on historic claims outlined in a mid-20th Century map. China has been criticized for building artificial islands with missile sites and air bases in the region. One Chinese worker in Vietnam was killed and a dozen injured in protests over China’s decision to build an oil rig off the Paracels.