HMS Albion, a British Royal Navy amphibious assault ship, arrives at Harumi Pier in Tokyo, Japan. Picture: REUTERS
HMS Albion, a British Royal Navy amphibious assault ship, arrives at Harumi Pier in Tokyo, Japan. Picture: REUTERS

London/Beijing/Hong Kong — China expressed anger on Thursday after a British Royal Navy warship sailed close to islands claimed by China in the South China Sea late in August, saying Britain was engaged in "provocation" and that it had lodged a strong complaint.

The HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship carrying a contingent of Royal Marines, passed by the Paracel Islands, in recent days, said two sources who were familiar with the matter but who asked not to be identified. The Albion was on its way to Ho Chi Minh City, where it docked on Monday 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.

The other source said the Albion did not enter the territorial seas around any features in the hotly disputed region, but demonstrated that Britain does not recognise excessive maritime claims around the Paracel Islands. Twelve nautical miles is an internationally recognised territorial limit. The Paracels are occupied by China but claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

China’s foreign ministry said the ship had entered Chinese territorial waters around the islands on August 31 without permission, and the Chinese navy had warned it to leave.

"The actions by the British ship violated Chinese law and 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 said.

"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. 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 Royal Navy spokesman said: "HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms."

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $3-trillion of shipborne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Britain does not have any territorial claims in the area. While the US navy has conducted freedom of navigation operations in the same area in the past, this British challenge to China’s growing control of the strategic waterway comes after the US has said it would like to see more international participation in such actions.

Both Britain and the US say they conduct such operations throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies.

The UK navy has sailed close to the disputed Spratly Islands, further south in the South China Sea, several times in recent years but not within the 12 nautical mile limit, regional diplomatic sources have said.

Freedom of navigation

Singapore-based South China Sea expert Ian Storey said Britain had strong traditional interests in defending freedom of navigation but regular deployments in the South China Sea would be constrained due to limited numbers of warships and 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 been remiss in upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea," said Storey, of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

"But China will be displeased as it suggests that US allies are responding to Washington’s appeals. It might also nudge other US allies to make similar moves," he said.

Freedom of navigation operations have so far not persuaded Beijing to curtail its South China Sea activities, which have included extensive reclamation of reefs and islands and the construction of runways, hangars and missile systems. Beijing says it is entitled to build on its territory and says the facilities are for civilian use and self-defence purposes. China blames Washington for militarising the region with its freedom of navigation patrols.

Foreign aircraft and vessels in the region are routinely challenged by Chinese naval ships and monitoring stations on the fortified islands, sources have said previously.

In April, warships from Australia, which like Britain is a close US ally, had what Canberra described as a close "encounter" with Chinese naval vessels in the contested sea.

The Albion is one of three Royal Navy ships deployed to Asia in 2018, along with HMS Argyll and HMS Sutherland.