Beijing yesterday expressed anger, after a British Royal Navy warship sailed close to islands claimed by China in the South China Sea late last month, saying that the UK was engaged in “provocation” and that it had lodged a strong complaint.
The HMS Albion, a 22,000-tonne amphibious warship carrying a contingent of Royal Marines, exercised its “freedom of navigation” rights as it passed near the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), said two sources who are familiar with the matter, but asked not to be identified.
The Albion was on its way to Ho Chi Minh City, where it docked on Monday following a deployment in and around Japan.
One of the sources said that Beijing dispatched a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the vessel, but both sides remained calm during the encounter.
The other source said that the Albion did not enter the territorial seas around any features in the region, but demonstrated that Britain does not recognize excessive claims around the Paracels.
Twelve nautical miles (22km) is an internationally recognized territorial limit.
The Paracels are occupied entirely by China, but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a faxed statement said that the ship had on Friday last week entered Chinese territorial waters around the Paracels without permission, and the Chinese navy had warned it to leave.
“The relevant actions by the British ship violated Chinese law and relevant international law, and infringed on China’s sovereignty. China strongly opposes this and has lodged stern representations with the British side to express strong dissatisfaction,” the ministry said.
“China strongly urges the British side to immediately stop such provocative actions to avoid harming the broader picture of bilateral relations, and regional peace and stability,” it added. “China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty and security.”
The encounter comes at a delicate time in London-Beijing relations.
Britain has been courting China for a post-Brexit free-trade deal, and both nations like to describe how they are experiencing a “golden era” in ties.
“HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms,” a Royal Navy spokesman said.
While the US Navy has conducted freedom of navigation operations in the area, the British challenge comes after the US said it would like to see more international participation in such actions.
The Royal Navy has sailed close to the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) several times in recent years, but not within the 12 nautical mile limit, regional diplomatic sources have said.
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