Following in the wake of the US Navy, a British warship recently challenged China’s claims to the disputed South China Sea, provoking a confrontation with the Chinese military and triggering outrage in Beijing, Reuters reported Wednesday.
The warship HMS Albion, an amphibious assault ship carrying a contingent of UK Royal Marines and one of three Royal Navy surface ships deployed to Asian waters this year, was confronted by the Chinese navy – a frigate and two Chinese helicopters – when it sailed close to Chinese-occupied territories in the Paracel Islands in late August, Reuters reported.
The Chinese navy instructed the British vessel to leave the area, and the situation did not escalate further, the report said.
“HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms,” a spokesman for the Royal Navy told Reuters.
Beijing on Thursday strongly criticized London’s actions, calling the recent incident a provocation.
“The relevant actions by the British ship violated Chinese law and relevant international law and infringed on China’s sovereignty,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement to Reuters. “China strongly opposes this and has lodged stern representations with the British side to express strong dissatisfaction.”
“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,” the ministry added, according to Reuters. “China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty and security.”
The US military regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea, often sending both warships and bombers past contested territories in the area. And Washington has been pressing allies and international partners to push back on Chinese efforts to dominate the strategic waterway.
London appears to be answering Washington’s call, and Beijing may be particularly upset because it could encourage others to do the same.
Last week, the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted joint military exercises in the South China Sea, putting on a show of force with aircraft carriers and other weapons systems in China’s backyard.
Gavin Williamson, the British defense secretary, said on June 3 – one day after US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis accused China of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea – that the deployment of the Albion and other vessels to the region sent the “strongest of signals” on the importance of freedom of navigation.
“We believe that countries should play by the rules,” Williamson said in a clear reference to China.
Increased pressure by the US and Britain has not curbed China’s ambitions in the waterway, through which trillions of dollars’ worth of trade pass annually.
Over the past year, China has significantly increased its military presence in the region by deploying jamming technology, anti-ship cruise missiles, and surface-to-air missiles at its outposts in the South China Sea. Chinese bombers have also become much more active in the area.
The Chinese military, arguing that it is defending Chinese territory, regularly threatens foreign ships and aircraft that get too close, and confrontations are not uncommon. The US Navy and other countries in the flashpoint region say their operations have not been affected by China’s threats and warnings.
China’s Ministry of National Defense said on Thursday that it would continue to dispatch ships and planes to confront countries outside the region that “continue to send warships to the South China Sea to stir up trouble.”