China lashed out at Britain on Thursday for sending a warship close to disputed islands in the South China Sea which has competing claims from other nations.
The South China Sea is at the heart of a land and water dispute between China, the United States, and many Southeast Asian nations. China’s claim to the region is historic going back to the Xia and Han dynasties. The US has maintained that region as part of the international waters. Other countries that are involved in the South China Sea dispute include Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
One of the reasons why the South China Sea is so vital to these countries is due to the strategic advantage it provides. If China had complete control of the region, then it would be able to control a major trade route. It would be able to disrupt trade shipments that pass through this region to East and Southeast Asia. Currently, US$5.3 trillion worth of trade passes through the South China Sea, which is projected to carry 40 % of future global trade.
In the past, China has backed its expansive claims with island-building and naval patrols. The United States says it does not take sides in territorial disputes but has sent military ships and planes near disputed islands, calling them “freedom of navigation” operations to ensure access to key shipping and air routes.
The U.S. and its allies have in recent times sent planes and warships to the area for “freedom of navigation” operations intended as a signal to Beijing of their right — claimed under international law — to pass through the contested waters.
China’s foreign ministry said HMS Albion, an amphibious assault ship, entered the area on Aug. 31, sailing close to the Paracel Island chain, known as Xisha in Chinese.
The vessel “entered the territorial waters of China’s Xisha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement. “The Chinese Navy verified and identified the warship according to law and warned it to leave. “The foreign ministry has lodged a protest “expressing strong dissatisfaction,” the statement continued.
However, London insisted the warship was operating according to international law. A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said: “HMS Albion exercised the right to freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.” He added the U.K. had a “strong relationship with China.
Beijing has deployed a range of military hardware including anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles and electronic jammers across the South China Sea, where it has built islets and other maritime features into hardened military facilities, according to U.S. officials.
In May, China landed heavy bombers on Woody Island in the Paracels, a show of military strength intended to boost its territorial claims in the area.
Woody Island is home to China’s largest base in the island chain, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Beijing claims most of the resource-rich sea, through which $5 trillion in shipping trade passes annually, with competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Our assessment is that the UK was within its rights to sail past the disputed islands under International Law. Freedom of Passage, guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), allows any ship, commercial or military, to travel through any major water body without being stopped. We feel that the UK is following the US’s example of showing its naval strength in the region. We believe that China will issue a stern response to this incident by creating more forward deployments in the Paracel islands in the near future.