A British Royal Navy warship has sailed close to Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea, in a move that Beijing has slammed as a “provocation.”
The incident occurred on August 31, when the HMS Albion amphibious warship was on its way from Japan to Vitenam’s Ho Chi Minh City when a Chinese frigate accompanied by two helicopters were sent to stop it from getting any closer to the China’s Paracel Islands, Reuters reported Thursday.
The two sides kept calm during the encounter but the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement later on that the move was provocative.
“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 said in a statement to Reuters.
Noting that Beijing had “expressed strong dissatisfaction” with London, the statement added, “China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty and security.”
According to an unnamed source, the British warship stayed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, the internationally recognized territorial limit.
“HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms,” a Royal Navy spokesman said.
China lays claim over the Paracels but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have similar claims of their own over the islands.
Expert say the move was a clear indication of Britain’s support for the US, which has carried out similar freedom of navigation missions in the past and asked its allies to participate.
UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said in June that London had decided to deploy at least three ships to the region in order to send the “strongest of signals” on the importance of freedom of navigation.
The British Navy had previously sailed close to the Chinese-claimed Spratly Islands, further south in the South China Sea, several times in recent years. But none of those passes were within the 12 nautical mile limit, according to British media.
China has defended its right to build artificial islands in the sea, which acts as a gateway for some $3 trillions of shipborne trade every year.
Beijing has also made it clear that it will intercept foreign aircraft and vessels that challenge its sovereignty there.