Britain has been warned by China that the deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea could be viewed as a “hostile action”. The MoD plans to send Britain’s new aircraft carrier to the Asia Pacific region on her first operational deployment, due in 2021.
The government is keen to assert freedom of navigation through international waters and, alongside US and Australian allies, has been forthright in defending such actions against an increasingly belligerent China.
The planned deployment will see F-35 stealth jets from the US Marine Corps embarked on the 65,000 ton ship.
Speaking in London last week Major General Su Guanghui, China’s Defence Attaché to the UK, said: “If the US and UK join hands in a challenge or violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, that would be hostile action”.
China reacted angrily last year when HMS Albion, one of the Royal Navy’s amphibious assault ships, transited the South China Sea, close to the Paracel Islands, over which China, along with other nations, claim sovereignty. At the time the British government was accused of “provocative actions” in the contested region.
The MoD insisted HMS Albion was always in international waters. The Paracels are controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
China’s claim to the 12-mile limit around the islands - and the similarly uninhabited Spratly islands 200 miles further south - is not internationally recognised.
Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK Insisted that China would “never seek hegemony, expansion or a sphere of influence”.
“The South China Sea is a vast ocean... we have no objection to people sailing around there but do not enter Chinese territorial waters within 12 nautical miles,” he said. “If you don’t do that, there shouldn’t be a problem. The South China Sea is wide enough to have free navigation of shipping.”
China has been accused in recent years of building artificial islands in the South China Sea to expand its military reach, in violation of international law.
However, Mr Liu insisted that whilst “the current international may not be perfect...one cannot scrap it, start all over again or cherry-pick what one wants”.
He strongly condemned the confrontation with HMS Albion, saying it had created a lot of problems in China-UK relations and suggested the UK had been acting on behalf of a foreign power, believed to be the US. “It was to show muscle,” he said. “The UK should not do this dirty job for somebody else.”
A Government spokesperson said: “The UK has enduring interests in the region and is committed to maintaining regional security. The presence of international navies in the South China Sea is normal and the Royal Navy is no exception to this.
“We remain committed to asserting rights of freedom of navigation at sea and in the air as provided for by international law.”