British warship conducts freedom of navigation operation near South China Sea islands
Beijing expressed anger in early September 2018 after a British Royal Navy warship sailed close to islands claimed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the South China Sea in late August, saying Britain was engaged in “provocation” and that the PRC had lodged a strong complaint.
The HMS Albion, pictured, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship carrying a contingent of Royal Marines, exercised its “freedom of navigation” rights as it passed near the Paracel Islands, two sources, who were familiar with the matter but who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.
The Albion was on its way to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where it docked following a deployment in and around Japan.
One of the sources said Beijing dispatched a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the British vessel, but both sides remained calm during the encounter.
The other source said the Albion did not enter the territorial seas around any features in the hotly disputed region but demonstrated that the United Kingdom (U.K.) does not recognize excessive maritime claims around the Paracel Islands. Twelve nautical miles is an internationally recognized territorial limit.
The Paracels are occupied entirely by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The PRC’s Foreign Ministry, in a faxed statement sent to Reuters, said the ship had entered Chinese territorial waters around the Paracel Islands on August 31, 2018, 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 added.
“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 said. “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 countries like to describe how they have a “golden era” in ties.
A spokesman for the Royal Navy said: “HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.”
The PRC’s claims in the South China Sea, through which some U.S. $3 trillion of shipborne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The U.K. does not have any territorial claims in the area.
While the U.S. Navy has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the same area in the past, this British challenge to China’s growing control of the strategic waterway comes after the United States has said it would like to see more international participation in such actions.
Both Britain and the United States say they conduct FONOPs throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies.