China Protests U.K. Sail-By of Disputed South Sea Island Chain

HMS Albion
HMS Albion. Photo: Royal Navy

By David Tweed (Bloomberg) — China accused the U.K. of infringing on its sovereignty after a Royal Navy warship sailed close to islands it claims in the disputed South China Sea.

The U.K. “violated international and Chinese laws” when the amphibious warship HMS Albion passed by the Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands in recent days, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing on Thursday. “China strongly urges Britain to stop similar provocations so as to keep stability and peace.”

The Albion’s maneuver was an assertion of freedom of navigation, Reuters reported, citing two people familiar with the matter. The ship was on its way to Ho Chi Minh City, where it docked on Monday following a deployment in and around Japan, it said. The Paracel island chain is also claimed by Vietnam, which in May asked China to end bomber aircraft drills in the area, calling it a violation of its own sovereignty.

Beijing dispatched a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the Albion during its latest pass, Reuters added, but both sides remained calm during the encounter. It cited a source as saying the ship’s latest pass demonstrates that the U.K. doesn’t recognize excessive maritime claims around the islands.

Hua said at her briefing that China would continue to adopt “necessary measures” to uphold its sovereignty and national security.

Disputed Waters

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea based on a 1947 map showing vague dashes — the so-called nine-dash line. Five other countries — including Vietnam and the Philippines — have also staked claims in the area, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. An international arbitration panel in the Hague ruled in 2016 that China’s claims have no legal standing.

It is at least the second time this year that the Royal Navy has performed sail-bys close to — but not within — the 12-nautical-mile territorial zone China claims around the features it occupies in the waters.

In June, three Royal Navy warships — including the Albion — were sent to the South China Sea to send the “strongest of signals” to countries that don’t “play by the rules,” the U.K.’s Daily Star newspaper reported, citing Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson.

Williamson foreshadowed the navy’s coming voyages during a February visit to Australia. There, he said another British ship — the HMS Sutherland — would sail through the South China Sea, “making it clear our navy has a right to do that.”

France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly said at June’s Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore that French and British naval forces would sail together through “certain areas” in the South China Sea. The U.S. routinely conducts freedom of navigation operations close to islets, rocks and reefs occupied by Beijing.

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