"Three Australian warships were challenged by the Chinese military as they travelled through the disputed South China Sea earlier this month, the ABC can reveal."
The confrontations with China's People's Liberation Army Navy are believed to have occurred as China was conducting its largest ever naval exercises in the hotly contested waters.
Defence sources have confirmed Australian frigates HMAS Anzac and HMAS Toowoomba as well as replenishment ship HMAS Success were challenged by the PLA Navy after those Australian vessels left Subic Bay, Philippines on the way to a 3 day goodwill visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull "would not confirm the incident but reiterated Australia's right to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the area."
Australian Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne also "reiterated Australia's rights within international law and downplayed the seriousness of the incident."
"I think 'confrontation' is somewhat of a tabloid-style description of what goes on in the South China Sea very regularly," Pyne said.
In a statement, China's Defence Ministry said: "“The reports from Australia are different from the facts". "On April 15 China's naval vessels encountered Australian naval ships in the South China Sea. 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...."
Ships visiting Subic Bay (near Manila) Philippines can't avoid crossing China's self placed Nine dash line to sail to Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam. (Map courtesy Wiki).
Not only might China be angry that Australia was crossing China's new nine dash delineated "lake" but was also angry Australia was visiting China's occasional enemy neighbour, Vietnam.