A file photo of the HMS Albion. Photo: Royal British Navy
A file photo of the HMS Albion. Photo: Royal British Navy

China’s defense ministry has broken its silence about what it described as an “incursion” and a following face-off with the British navy at the end of August in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

China slammed a move by the HMS Albion, a British Royal Navy amphibious transport ship, into disputed waters, calling it “provocative.”

Beijing alleged that the HMS Albion, carrying a contingent of British Royal Marines, entered its territorial waters off the Xisha Islands, otherwise known as the Paracel Islands, while en route to Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.

Beijing media also reported that People’s Liberation Army seamen stationed on the islands scrambled a frigate and two helicopters to monitor and intercept the British warship and warned it to stay away from what it claimed to be China’s sea border on Aug. 31.

The HMS Albion is seen sailing into a port in Vietnam's
The HMS Albion sailing into port in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City earlier this week. Photo: British Royal Navy

The British Royal Navy has sailed close to the disputed atolls in the South China Sea several times in recent years, but not within 12 nautical miles, a limit that delineates the border of a country’s territorial waters.

The islets and atolls are occupied by China, but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The largest island of the archipelago, Yongxing, or Woody Island, is the seat of Beijing’s newly created Sansha municipal government. This was set up to give substance to China’s claims to the waters surrounding not only the Xisha, but also the Zhongsha islands (Macclesfield Bank) and Nansha (Spratly) islands.

Beijing’s frenzied reclamation projects over the years have seen islets become PLA airstrips in the sea, dubbed the “unsinkable aircraft carriers.”

China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that it had made solemn representations to the UK about the incident, vowing to go to any length to defend its sovereignty.

China’s defense ministry also added that countries outside the region ignored the trend of easing tensions in the South China Sea and dispatched planes and ships to stir up trouble, which could lead to “accidents that no one wants to see.”

But a spokesman for the British Royal Navy said the Albion exercised her rights of freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms, adding that the ship had not entered any territorial seas in the region.

London has sided with Washington in snubbing Beijing’s excessive claims around the Paracels and other parts of the vast expanses of the South China Sea.

While the US Navy has long been plying the waters exercising freedom of navigation, the British challenge came after the US said it would like to see more international participation in such actions.

The UK didn’t complain when Chinese warships sailed through UK territorial waters last year. China doesn’t have a valid argument here. This is what international law looks like,” tweeted Bill Hayton, author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.

The encounter came at a delicate time in London-Beijing relations. Britain had been courting China for a post-Brexit free-trade deal and both nations like to describe how they have ushered in a “golden era” in ties.

HMS Albion is pictured at sea during Exercise Cold Response near Norway in February 2010.The Albion Class, Landing Platform Dock ships (LPD) primary function is to embark, transport, and deploy and recover (by air and sea) troops and their equipment, vehicles and miscellaneous cargo, forming part of an Amphibious Assault Force.
The HMS Albion. Photo: British Royal Navy

The 22,000-ton Albion normally carries a crew of 325 marines and is capable of ferrying more than 60 large vehicles up to the size of a battle tank. It has two landing spots for helicopters.

The BBC reported at the end of 2017 that Whitehall was considering decommissioning the Albion and her sister ships, as part of cost-cutting measures intended to mitigate the expense of the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers.

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