(Reuters) – Beijing expressed anger on Thursday after a British Royal Navy warship sailed close to Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea late last month, saying the Great Britain -Bretagne was engaged in a “provocation” and that it had filed a firm complaint.
HMS Albion, a 22,000-tonne amphibious warfare vessel carrying a contingent of Royal Marines, exercised its “freedom of navigation” rights by passing near the Paracel Islands, said two sources familiar with the matter but who asked not to not be identified. Reuters.
The Albion was en route to Ho Chi Minh City, where it docked on Monday after a deployment in and around Japan.
One of the sources said Beijing sent a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the British ship, but both sides remained calm during the encounter.
The other source, the Albion, did not enter territorial waters around elements of the hotly contested region, but demonstrated that Britain does not recognize excessive maritime claims around the Paracel Islands. Twelve nautical miles is an internationally recognized territorial limit.
The Paracels are fully occupied by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
China’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement faxed to Reuters, said the vessel entered Chinese territorial waters around the Paracel Islands on August 31 without permission and was warned by the Chinese navy to leave.
“The relevant actions of the British vessel violated Chinese law and relevant international law, and undermined China’s sovereignty. China firmly opposes it and has filed solemn representations with the British side to express its strong dissatisfaction,” the ministry added.
“China strongly urges the British side to immediately stop such provocative actions, to avoid damaging the broader image of bilateral relations and regional peace and stability,” he said.
“China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty and security.”
The meeting comes at a delicate moment in London-Beijing relations.
Britain has courted China for a post-Brexit free trade deal, and the two countries like to describe how they have a “golden era” in relations.
A Royal Navy spokesman said: ‘HMS Albion exercised its freedom of navigation rights in full accordance with international law and standards.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said Britain had a strong relationship with China.
FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION
China’s claims to the South China Sea, through which some $3 trillion in maritime trade passes each year, are disputed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Britain has no territorial claims in the region.
While the US Navy has conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in the same area in the past, this British challenge to China’s growing control over the strategic waterway comes after the US said it would like to see greater international participation in such actions. .
Britain and the United States say they conduct FONOP operations around the world, including in areas claimed by allies.
The British Navy has sailed near the disputed Spratly Islands further south in the South China Sea on several occasions in recent years, but not within the 12 nautical mile limit, regional diplomatic sources said.
Singapore-based South China Sea expert Ian Storey said Britain had strong traditional interests in defending freedom of navigation, but regular deployments to the South China Sea would be limited due to the limited number of warships and the onerous demands in other parts of the world.
“The UK’s actions will please Washington as the Trump administration has grumbled that US allies have failed to respect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” said Storey, of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute of Singapore.
“But China will be unhappy as it suggests that US allies respond to calls from Washington… It could also spur other US allies to take similar action.”
So far, FONOP has failed to persuade Beijing to scale back its activities in the South China Sea, which have included extensive reef and island reclamation and construction of runways, hangars and missile systems.
Beijing says it has the right to build on its territories and says the facilities are for civilian use and necessary self-defense purposes. China accuses Washington of militarizing the region with its freedom of navigation patrols.
Foreign planes and ships in the region are regularly challenged by Chinese navy ships and monitoring stations on the fortified islands, sources said previously.
In April, Australian warships – which, like Britain, are a close US ally – had what Canberra described as a close “encounter” with Chinese navy vessels in the disputed sea. .
Albion is one of three Royal Navy ships deployed to Asia this year, along with HMS Argyll and HMS Sutherland.
In a speech in Jakarta in August, Foreign Secretary for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, said Britain was committed to a lasting security presence in Asia and urged countries to respect freedom of navigation and international law in the South China Sea.
This law included the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, whose landmark 2016 judgment criticized Chinese actions in the South China Sea and found no basis for its sweeping historical claims. Beijing has repeatedly rejected the decision and earlier refused to participate in the case brought by the Philippines.
Reporting by Tim Kelly. Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan and William James in LONDON, Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Greg Torode in HONG KONG. Editing by Lincoln Feast and Alison Williams