Beijing warns of ‘counter-measures’ as Royal Navy sails South China Sea

China’s military and state media have warned the UK against provocation as it sent a carrier strike group, led by a Royal Navy aircraft carrier, through the contested South China Sea.

A spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defence, Wu Qian, said it respected freedom of navigation but firmly opposed any naval activities that aimed to provoke controversy.

“The action should never try to destabilise regional peace, including the latest military collaboration between the UK and Japan,” spokesman Wu Qian, disse. “The Chinese navy will take any necessary actions to counter-measure such behaviour.”

The passage marks the first time the strike group, led by HMS Queen Elizabeth and including two destroyers and two frigates, has been deployed to the Asia-Pacific region. It will sail to Japan – reportedly with stops in India, Singapore and South Korea – to take part in exercises alongside allies.

The journey had been expected to raise significant interest in Beijing, which is in territorial disputes with several countries over waters and islands in the region.

The mission has also prompted multiple reports and commentary in China’s hawkish state media tabloid, the Global Times, which said “the very idea of a British presence in the South China Sea is dangerous”.

“If London tries to establish a military presence in the region with geopolitical significance, it will only disrupt the status quo in the region … And if there is any real action against China, it is looking for a defeat.”

The UK Ministry of Defence has repeatedly said it is taking the most direct route freely through international waters to take part in exercises with allies. “We are not going to go to the other side of the world to be provocative. We will be confident, but not confrontational,” UK defence secretary Ben Wallace told parliament in April.

Later this year, the UK will also permanently assign two warships to the region.

Wallace said earlier this month: “As we witness a tilt in power towards the Indo-Pacific region, we are committed to working with our partners here to defend democratic values, tackle shared threats and keep our nations safe.”

Increased Chinese militarisation and expansionism in the region, particular towards Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a Chinese province it will retake, have worsened tensions between China and many of its neighbours.

The UK’s mission was congratulated by the US state department but on Tuesday the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin warned military resources were scarce and the UK could perhaps “be more helpful in other parts of the world”.

Drew Thompson, a former US defence department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China and Taiwan, said the strike group’s multinational makeup – including US F-35 aircraft on the UK carrier – demonstrated “the epitome of coalitions” and military integration, which was bigger than just the South China Sea and China.

“China doesn’t present a military threat to the UK,” said Thompson. “But this [strike group] is a model of collective security and of interoperability to deal with any kind of threat. China happens to be a significant one … but the implications are bigger than that.”

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