Beijing threatens to 'expel' Royal Navy warships from South China Sea

30 July 2021, 06:56 | Updated: 30 July 2021, 07:11

Strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth is sailing through waters that are heavily contested between China and neighbouring countries
Strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth is sailing through waters that are heavily contested between China and neighbouring countries. Picture: Alamy
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Beijing has threatened to "expel" British warships from parts of the South China Sea as HMS Queen Elizabeth and her carrier group arrived in the disputed waters today.

Chinese state media threatened stern action against the Royal Navy's carrier strike group (CSG) if it does not "remain restrained and obey the rules" as it sails through the waters.

The nationalist state tabloid Global Times even warned the Chinese navy is hoping to “practise” its military skills on the British ships as they sail through the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace set the scene earlier this month for a confrontation with Beijing when he said the deployment led by the flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth would sail on any route defined as legitimate under international law.

China claims the South China Sea despite an international court ruling in 2016 that it did not belong to the nation, which has grown increasingly assertive as it builds military bases and airport runways on constructed islands in the disputed waters.

An editorial in the state-run Global Times said the CSG entered the sea on Sunday as part of the "UK's effort to show its presence in the region".

An anonymous expert told the newspaper: "While the Chinese military drills are not likely directly related to the UK warships, they show that the [navy] is at a high combat readiness.

"Just like US warships that intruded Chinese islands and reefs in the region, if UK vessels do the same, they will also be expelled."

Mr Wallace had declined to say whether the fleet would breach China's 12-mile zone.

"It's no secret that China shadows and challenges ships transiting international waters on very legitimate routes," he told The Times on July 20.

"We will respect China and we hope that China respects us ... we will sail where international law allows."

The passage of the Queen Elizabeth, which is accompanied by an American and Dutch ship as well as its own support vessels, is intended to underline the government’s strategic “tilt” to East Asia at a time of increasing Chinese military assertiveness throughout the region. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said last week that, despite China’s claims to sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, Britain had a “duty” to insist on freedom of navigation through the strategic waterway through which $5 trillion of trade passes every year.

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, said.

“The Chinese navy will take any necessary actions to counter-measure such behaviour.”

The tensions come after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there was a global "battle for hearts and minds" to attempt to reduce China's influence on international organisations.

Speaking in the Commons on July 6, Mr Raab said he was "very familiar with the routing" of the CSG and had discussed the deployment with his Chinese counterpart, insisting it was being done in a "confident but not confrontational" way.