The Royal Australian Navy’s HMA Ships Anzac, Toowoomba and Success have completed a port visit to Vietnam following a confrontation with the Chinese military in the South China Sea.
During the port visit to Ho Chi Minh City, which is part of a three month South East Asia deployment, Anzac, Toowoomba and Success conducted a logistic resupply and local engagement with Vietnam People’s Armed Forces and local government officials.
Chief of Joint Operations, Vice Admiral David Johnston, said the deployment provided an opportunity to continue to build a working relationship with Vietnamese counterparts and engagement with Australia’s ASEAN partners.
“I am particularly pleased that we are able to complete this port visit in the 20th year of Australia-Vietnam defence relations,” VADM Johnston said.
During their deployment to the region, the three Australian warships will participate in a series of activities with nations in the region, including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. Most of these states have competing territorial claims with China in the South China Sea.
On the way to Vietnam, the three RAN ships were challenged by the Chinese military after leaving the Philippines. The confrontation apparently involved ‘polite but robust’ dialogue, although senior government officials refused to comment further.
The Chinese military recently conducted its largest-ever exercises in the contested South China Sea, involving 10,000 sailors, 48 vessels, and its newest aircraft carrier.
The passage of Australian warships through the contested waters intends to reinforce international freedom of navigation rights. In this context, the three ships’ activities with regional nations can be seen as a soft rebuke to China’s expansive maritime claims as the People’s Liberation Army increases its presence on contested islands and reefs.
Toowoomba and Success will also participate in Exercise Bersama Shield in the coming weeks. Bersama Shield aims to enhance interoperability and strengthen the professional relationships of the Five Power Defence Arrangement nations (Australia, the UK, NZ, Singapore, and Malaysia) through the conduct of maritime, land and air operations in a multi-threat environment.
The Five Powers arrangement is not a formal military alliance, but commits members to immediate consultations following an armed attack on either Malaysia or Singapore. The arrangement came about following the British decision in 1967 to withdraw military forces from east of the Suez Canal.
Malaysia has competing claims with China and Taiwan over islands in the Spratly archipelago, although it does not often comment on the claims for fear of angering China, its largest trading partner and foremost source of foreign direct investment.
Australia does not recognise any particular claims in the South China Sea, but has a strong interest in maintaining freedom of navigation rights (hence the route chosen by HMAS Anzac, Toowoomba, and Success). The ADF also conducts surveillance overflights of the sea using P8-A Poseidon aircraft based at the Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) HQ in Malaysia’s Butterworth air force base.
The US regularly asserts rights to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. During the recent Chinese military exercises, three American carrier battle groups passed through the area.