Australia Defends South China Sea Presence Amid Challenge Report

(Bloomberg) -- Australian leader Malcolm Turnbull says his navy has a “perfect right” to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea after a media report said three of his frigates had been challenged by Chinese forces.

“We maintain and practice the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world," Prime Minister Turnbull told reporters in London on Thursday. “In this context, you’re talking about naval vessels on the world’s oceans, including the South China Sea, as is our perfect right in accordance with international law.”

The People’s Liberation Army, conducting its largest ever naval exercises in the region earlier this month, challenged the frigates as they were transiting toward Vietnam for a goodwill visit, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported, citing military sources it didn’t identify. One official described the exchanges as polite but robust, it said.

Australia’s bid to maintain strong economic ties with China, its largest trading partner, while challenging its militarization of the South China Sea has become an increasingly fraught balancing act. Turnbull last week said tensions with Beijing remained high, four months after a spat over Chinese meddling in domestic political affairs prompted him to push for new legislation to curtail foreign interference.

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