Beijing says British warship in South China Sea threatens future trade deal

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HMS Albion
The HMS Albion. Picture courtesy of the Royal Navy

China has warned that post-Brexit free trade could be affected after a British warship sailed past South China Sea islands claimed by Beijing.

China was infuriated by the HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship, sailing near the Paracel Islands last month, calling it a “provocation”. 

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The Paracels are occupied by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

China and Britain, which have talked of a “golden era” of relations, agreed last month to look at the possibility of reaching a “top notch” post-Brexit free trade deal.

But the Royal Navy’s mission in the South China Sea has risked undermining this ambition.

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“Britain’s actions were wrong,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing today (Friday, September 7).

“They clearly violated the consensus and spirit put forward by Britain’s leadership that they wished to build a golden era in ties with China. This certainly will unfavourably influence the further development of the China-Britain relationship.

“We hope that Britain can recognise the severity of the issue and take actions to rectify the situation”. She did not elaborate on what sort of actions could be taken.

The official China Daily newspaper made similar claims in an editorial today.

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

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which some $3 trillion of shipborne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Britain does not have any territorial claims in the area.

The China Daily said Britain was trying to “curry favour” with the US, which has been pushing for greater international participation in freedom of navigation operations in the contested waters.

“Now that it is eyeing the US as an economic lifeline after it exits the European Union – the United Kingdom is no doubt eager to seize whatever opportunity it can to get into Washington’s good books,” the English-language newspaper said.

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