China protests United Kingdom sail-by of disputed South Sea island chain

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China has accused the United Kingdom of "provocative actions", after a British warship sailed close to the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea.

The British vessel was reportedly asserting its right to freedom of navigation in the region, when it sailed past an island in the Paracel chain which is occupied by Chinese forces.

According to Hua, the vessel "entered China's territorial sea without the Chinese government's approval" and that "the Chinese navy identified and verified the British warship in accordance with the law and warned and expelled it".

China claims a large swathe of the South China Sea, extending from its southern coast nearly to Malaysia, a much larger area than the internationally recognized territorial limit of 22 nautical kilometers (12 nautical miles).

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.

"The relevant behaviour of the British warship violated Chinese law and relevant worldwide law and infringed upon China's sovereignty", she affirmed. "China strongly opposes this and has lodged stern representations with the British side to express strong dissatisfaction", the ministry added.

Hua said at her briefing that China would continue to adopt "necessary measures" to uphold its sovereignty and national security.

Beijing on Thursday strongly criticised London's actions, calling the recent incident a provocation.

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"They clearly violated the consensus and spirit put forward by Britain's leadership that they wished to build a golden era in ties with China".

UK Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson said the Royal Navy has assigned three warships to the Asia-Pacific to send the "strongest of signals" on the importance of freedom of navigation and to keep up maximum pressure on North Korea.

While the USA has conducted freedom of navigation operations in the same area in the past, the British challenge comes after the USsaid it would like to see more worldwide participation in such actions.

Last month, the UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson gave a speech in Washington in which he said China needed to recognise and abide by global norms.

The HMS Albion is one of the UK Navy's two amphibious assault ships, with capacity for more than 400 sailors.

The situation in the South China Sea has stabilised, with the joint efforts of China and Southeast Asian countries, the country's defence ministry said in a statement responding to the Royal Navy action. Under the Trump administration, the freedom of navigation operations have increased in the region.

That law included the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, whose landmark 2016 judgement criticized Chinese actions in the South China Sea and found no basis for its sweeping historic claims.

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