China sends navy to challenge British warship HMS Albion sailing near disputed Paracel Islands

China sends navy frigate to challenge British warship and accuses the UK of ‘provocation’ after HMS Albion sails close to islands claimed by Beijing

  • Royal navy warship was carrying marines when confronted by Chinese military
  • HMS Albion intercepted off the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands 
  • Chinese warship and two helicopters challenged vessel near disputed territory
  • Beijing said the British manoeuvre was ‘provocation’ and lodged a complaint
  • Britain says the the vessel was exercising its ‘freedom of navigation’ rights  

A Chinese naval ship and two helicopters intercepted a British Royal Navy warship as it sailed near islands Beijing claims it owns.

The HMS Albion, a 22,000-tonne amphibious warship carrying a contingent of Royal Marines, was challenged as it passed near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea last Friday.

Chinese government officials denounced the manoeuvre as a ‘provocation’ and said it had lodged a strong complaint with the British authorities.

Britain claims the vessel was exercising its ‘freedom of navigation’ rights as it passed near the disputed islands on its way to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, before docking following deployment in Japan on Monday.

The HMS Albion, the British Royal Navy’s flagship amphibious assault ship, as it arrives at Harumi Pier in Tokyo, Japan, last month for its recent deployment

Colonel Tim Neild (L), captain of Britain’s Royal Navy’s warship HMS Albion, shakes hands with representatives of the Vietnam People’s Navy, during the ship’s visit in Ho Chi Minh on Monday

The HMS Albion passed near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on its way to Ho Chi Minh City

Beijing dispatched a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the British vessel, but both sides remained calm during the encounter, a source who was familiar with the incident but asked not to be identified said.

The Paracels are occupied entirely by China but also claimed by Vietnam, Phillipines and Taiwan.  

China’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 without permission, and the Chinese navy warned it to leave.

The Albion did not enter the territorial seas around the hotly disputed region by going within 12 nautical miles of the islands, which is internationally recognised as the territorial limit.

But the move demonstrated Britain does not recognise excessive maritime claims around the Paracel Islands, a source said. 

The Chinese ministry added: ‘The relevant actions by the British ship violated Chinese law and relevant international law, and infringed on China’s sovereignty. 

HMS Albion docked at a port in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, on Monday at the start of a four-day visit in Vietnam as part of a celebration to mark the 45th anniversary of the two countries’ diplomatic ties

Military vehicles in the loading dock of the HMS Albion. When the Albion was launched in 2001 its command and combat systems were the most advanced in the Royal Navy

‘China strongly opposes this and has lodged stern representations with the British side to express strong dissatisfaction.

‘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 as 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.

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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 British Navy has previously 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.

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which some $3 trillion of shipborne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, but Britain does not have any territorial claims in the area. 

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague criticised Chinese actions in the South China Sea and found no basis for its sweeping historic claims in a landmark judgement in 2016. 

HMS Albion in Vietnam. The amphibious assault ship was launched by Princess Anne, at BAE Systems Marine shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, in March 2001

HMS Albion in Ho Chi Minh City this week. It was the first of a class of two large and powerful assault ships that replaced the existing Royal Navy vessels, HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid

Beijing has repeatedly rejected the ruling and earlier refused to participate in the case brought by the Philippines.

China’s activities in the area have included extensive reclaiming of reefs and islands as well as the construction of runways, hangars and missile systems. 

The Beijing government says it is entitled to build on its territories routinely challenge ships and monitoring stations on the fortified islands.  

The HMS Albion was challenged by a Chinese frigate and two helicopters as it sailed near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea last week

While the US 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 US say they conduct FONOP operations throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies.

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.

Beijing says it is entitled to build on its territories and says the freedom of navigation facilities are for civilian use, blaming Washington for militarising the region with its freedom of navigation patrols. 

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

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in June that deployment of the three ships was intended to send the ‘strongest of signals’ of the importance of freedom of navigation. 

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