China has now responded to the news that the UK plans to sail its anti-submarine Type 23 frigate, HMS Sutherland, will make the passage on her return from Australia later this year to assert freedom of navigation rights and challenge Beijing‘s increasing dominance in the region.
In an article in the widely read state-run tabloid Global Times, published in its English and Chinese-language editions, it warned: "If not provocation, the Royal Navy should behave modestly when passing through the South China Sea. By acting tough against China, Britain's Ministry of Defense is trying to validate its existence and grab attention."
The editorial continued: "As the Royal Navy has been hit by news such as a leaky aircraft carrier and the UK government has a tight budget, it appears a difficult mission for the Royal Navy to come all this way to provoke China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry statement on British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson's announcement in Australia that HMS Sutherland will transit the #SouthChinaSea en route back to the UK. pic.twitter.com/pkl27YWSYj— Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) 14 February 2018
Am i seriously reading people suggesting that China will sink HMS Sutherland, and moreover that it is what the UK government wants as a "distraction" from Brexit…? Seriously…? Do you guys really exist?
— Gabriele Molinelli (@Gabriel64869839) 13 February 2018
Freedom of navigation in South China Sea is not a problem. If HMS Sutherland sails through the South China Sea without provocation, Chinese will have no objection to its passage. https://t.co/zXB1SMmZyq
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) 14 February 2018
Speaking of Britain's controversial plan, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang reasserted China's insistence that its territorial claims do not conflict with international law when it comes to freedom of navigation and overflight.
"Thanks to the concerted efforts by China and littoral countries in the South China Sea, there is no problem with freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea at all," Geng said on Tuesday, February 13, adding he hoped "relevant sides don't try to create trouble out of nothing".
Mr. Williamson has not revealed, however, whether Sutherland would, in fact, sail within 12 nautical miles of any of the islands claimed by China. Such cruises, known as freedom of navigation operations, have routinely drawn protests from Beijing.
He signalled support for the United States approach, however, that has resulted in the country sending navy destroyers within the 12-mile marker of territorial waters. After one such freedom of navigation operation last summer China said it was a "serious political and military provocation".
Speaking on Australia's ABC network on Tuesday, February 13, the UK defence chief said: "It's very important that we demonstrate that these are seas anyone can pass through and we'll be making sure that the Royal Navy will protect those rights for international shipping.
"We've got to ensure that any form of malign intent is countered and we see increasing challenges — it's not just from China, it's from Russia, it's from Iran — and we've got to be constantly making sure that our security measures, our critical national infrastructure is protected," he said.
China and five other governments all claim territory in the South China Sea, home to vital sea lanes, rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of undersea oil and gas. Along with building and militarizing its artificial islands, China in 2016 rejected an international tribunal's ruling that largely invalidated its claims and has steadily increased naval missions and aerial patrols in the area.
Despite the foreign ministry's relatively mild comments, the British navy's actions could cause a rift in relations and lead to economic retaliation from Beijing, according to Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University.
China has long touted what it calls a "golden era" in ties with Britain, and two weeks ago hosted a visit from British Prime Minister Theresa May. "If this happens, it would be really serious," Shi said. "The relationship between China and Britain will be significantly harmed for a period of time."