An Australian warship has joined the US Navy in a drill in the South China Sea as tensions rise again between Beijing, Malaysia and Vietnam over disputed waters.

The Australian frigate HMAS Parramatta and three US warships arrived this week close to where the Chinese government survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 is suspected to be exploring for oil.

A vessel operated by Malaysia's Petronas state oil company is also operating in the area.

The joint navy exercises were likely planned for months in advance but the show of force comes amid accusations that China is exploiting the Covid-19 crisis to bolster its territorial claims in regional flashpoints.

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Beijing angered its Southeast Asian neighbours at the weekend by creating two administrative units on the Paracel and Spratly islands – archipelagos claimed by multiple countries in the region, including the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Hanoi issued a stinging rebuke, demanding that China respect its "sovereignty and abolish its wrongful decisions." Vietnam has also engaged in tense standoffs with the Haiyang Dizhi 8 over its suspected oil exploration surveys.

Beijing's assertive moves in the region, while many governments are distracted by their domestic battles to contain Covid-19, prompted the US to denounce its "bullying behaviour."

China maintains it has done nothing wrong.

China does military drills in the South China Sea in 2018. Photo / AP
China does military drills in the South China Sea in 2018. Photo / AP

A statement from the Australian defence ministry revealed that this week's exercises "honed interoperability between Australian and US navies, including replenishment-at-sea, aviation operations, maritime manoeuvres and communications drills."

China's recent maritime push has not been limited to the South China Sea. Tokyo lodged a formal diplomatic complaint with Beijing on Tuesday after four Chinese coast guard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea last Friday.

Japan controls the archipelago of five uninhabited islands, which lies 105 miles northwest of the Japanese island of Ishigaki and more than 200 miles from the coast of China.

Since deposits of oil were discovered in the area in the 1960s, Beijing has stepped up its claims to the territory. Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese foreign minister, protested at the seventh intrusion by Chinese ships into Japanese waters around the island so far this year during a phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.

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He also expressed Tokyo's concern over Beijing's creation of administrative districts for the Paracel and Spratly island groups. In a press conference, Mr Motegi said, "We condemn all acts that raise tensions".