China threatens military response if UK warships go near disputed islands

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China has warned Britain against sailing ships through disputed waters in the South China Sea, saying that such a move would be “hostile” and hinting that Beijing would be forced to responded militarily.

Reacting to a suggestion that the UK might send its aircraft carrier close to the contested Spratly Islands, with US jets onboard, China’s Ambassador to the UK said Britain “should not do this dirty job for somebody else”.

Speaking to the Defence Correspondents’ Association in London, Liu Xiaoming rejected the argument that the Royal Navy would be upholding international rules concerning Freedom of Navigation.

An aerial view of the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea

“The South China Sea is a vast ocean, it is three million square kilometres wide, we have no objection to people sailing around there but do not enter Chinese territorial waters within twelve nautical miles.

“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.”

The Spratly and Paracel Islands sit in strategic shipping lanes and are variously claimed by a number of nations in the region including China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The United States navy conducts regular freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to challenge China’s territorial claim.

Washington accuses Beijing of illegally building military facilities and installations on some of the islands, but China responds by labelling America as a bully and provocative.

In February last year, the former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said that Britain must be ready to use “hard power” to deter adversaries and so the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth would be sent to the South China Sea on her first operational deployment.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in Portsmouth in June

The Chinese Defence Attaché, speaking alongside the Ambassador at the same event, added: “If the US and UK join hands in a challenge or violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, that would be hostile action.”

But the UK government responded by saying it is opposed to “militarisation” of the South China Sea and insisting the aircraft carrier would still visit the South Pacific in 2021: “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,” a spokesman told Sky News.

“We remain committed to asserting rights of freedom of navigation at sea and in the air as provided for by international law.”

Ambassador Liu also said that China would be forced to intervene in Hong Kong if the state’s security forces lost control.

“If the riots become uncontrollable for the Hong Kong government, China cannot sit on its hands and watch. Hong Kong is part of China. We can’t watch this violence go on and on.”

Credit: Alistair Bunkall

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