WASHINGTON — British ships sailed through contested waters in the South China Sea parallel to a U.S.-Japan exercise, as western nations continue increased insistence of freedom of navigation in the contested seas claimed by China.
The HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship carrying a contingent of Royal Marines, joined by support vessels, sailed in close proximity to the Paracel Islands in late August, according to new reports confirmed by Pentagon officials.
The British ship was met by a Chinese frigate and two Chinese military helicopters, according to reports.
“HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms,” a spokesperson for the Royal Navy said in a statement released to the media.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement that said, “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 U.S. Navy has ratcheted up its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea as Beijing has continued to militarize the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea. Those islands are claimed by multiple nations and an international court has rejected China’s claims to them.
Britain’s increased sailings in the region come after a joint decision by England, France, Australia, the U.S. and other nations to show international participation in freedom of navigation exercises. The British Navy previously sailed close to the Spratly Islands.
In June, British defense minister Gavin Williamson met with Defense Secretary James Mattis and said deployment of U.K. ships in the South China Sea “sends the strongest of signals” regarding freedom of navigation. “We believe that countries should play by the rules,” he said then.
Earlier this week the Navy’s Ronald Reagan Strike Group joined with a defense flotilla from Japan to conduct joint military exercises in the South China Sea as another freedom of navigation exercise.