A British Royal Navy warship that sailed close to islands in the South China Sea claimed by China risked hampering any talks about a free trade agreement after Britain leaves the European Union, a major Chinese state-run newspaper said on Friday.
China and Britain agreed last month to look at the possibility of reaching a “top notch” post-Brexit free trade deal which, if struck, would be an important political win for Britain’s Conservative government.
“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,” the official China Daily newspaper said in an editorial.
Britain has long courted China for a post-Brexit trade deal and talked up a “golden era” in ties, although any formal talks could not begin until Britain officially leaves the European Union next year and typically take many years to conclude.
The HMS Albion, a 22,000 ton amphibious warship, sailed near the Paracel Islands claimed by China last month, Reuters reported on Thursday, prompting an angry reaction from China which called it a “provocation”.
The Paracels are occupied entirely by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
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 favor” with the United States, which has been pushing for more international participation in freedom of navigation operations in the strategic waterway.
“Now that it is eyeing the U.S. 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.
China’s Defence Ministry said in its statement responding to the Royal Navy action that, with the joint efforts of China and Southeast Asian countries, the situation in the South China Sea had stabilized.
“Certain countries from outside the region pay no heed to this, and send military ships and aircraft to the South China Sea to foment trouble, creating problems where none exist, threatening regional peace and stability,” it said.
China has repeatedly denounced what it views as interference from “countries outside the region” in the South China Sea, generally a message to the United States and its allies to stay out of the dispute.
Reporting by Adam Jourdan and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait