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

After China’s Foreign Ministry gave the UK a dressing down last month for sending a warship near contested islands in the South China Sea, the Royal Navy is now suggesting there will be more where that came from.

The UK has an obligation to “showcase” military support for allies in the region, the Royal Navy’s top official, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, told the Financial Times in an interview published on Sunday.

“If you are going to have a different interpretation of [international conventions on the laws of the sea] to the majority of nations, then that has to be resisted,” Jones said. “Otherwise you could see right around the world nations who will start to make their own interpretations.”

He added that he expected there would be more exercises that see British ships sail near contested islands.

If UK warships continue to traverse the waters near islands claimed and controlled by China, it would indicate that veiled threats from Beijing have fallen on deaf ears in London.

In September, Britain’s HMS Albion came within what China claimed to be its sea border off of the Xisha Islands, presumably referring to area within 12 nautical miles of land controlled by Beijing. The islands are also claimed by Vietnam and the government in Taiwan.

In response, Chinese state media published an English-language editorial suggesting that such actions put trade deals between China and the UK at risk. From the article:

“China and the UK had agreed to actively explore the possibility of discussing a free trade agreement after Brexit, but any act that harms China’s core interests will only put a spanner in the works.

“During her visit to Beijing early this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to intensify ‘the golden era’ of Sino-UK relations. To achieve that, the country should refrain from being Washington’s sharksucker in the South China Sea.”

We will have to wait and see to find out whether the Royal Navy will continue to push the envelope in the South China Sea. But the rhetoric suggests it is calling China’s bluff.

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