Australia's prime minister says the Australian navy has a "perfect right" to traverse the South China Sea after a media report that the Chinese navy challenged three Australian warships in the hotly contested waterway.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported on Friday the Chinese "challenged" two Australian frigates and an oil replenishment ship this month as the Australian ships were making their way to Vietnam. The report cited anonymous defense officials and did not detail the challenge.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not comment on the specific incident.

But he told reporters Australia has a "perfect right in accordance with international law" to practice the right of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

The Defense Department declined to provide operational details about ships in the South China Sea.