UK’s position on China ‘makes no sense’ says Sam Armstrong
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Tensions between the UK and China have worsened after a British frigate sailed through the Taiwan Strait for the first time in a decade. The 110-mile wide strategic passageway between China and Taiwan is considered internationally as high seas, but China claims the island of 24 million as its own territory. Voyages by non-US military vessels across the strait are rare, but growing in the face of rising military threats from China.
The Royal Navy sailed a frigate through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on Monday.
China blasted the Royal Navy for “harbouring evil intentions” regarding the transit by HMS Richmond.
The move angered China because the nation claims self-governing Taiwan as part of its territory.
The official account of the frigate HMS Richmond tweeted: “After a busy period working with partners and allies in the East China Sea, we are now en route through the Taiwan Strait to visit #Vietnam and the Vietnam People’s Navy. #CSG21 International by design”.
US Navy warships navigate through the Strait on roughly a monthly basis which provokes outrage from China.
Americans have traditionally been more reluctant to travel through the strait, but have increased their activity in the region recently.
The US has also travelled in the South China Sea more in recent days – much of this region is also claimed by China.
Britain last sailed through the Taiwan Strait in 2019, when HMS Enterprise, an armed Royal Navy survey vessel navigated the strait.
The last frigate or destroyer to make the journey was HMS Kent in 2008.
HMS Richmond was shadowed by two Chinese vessels on its journey from Japan to Vietnam.
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “HMS Richmond is navigating the Taiwan Strait in accordance with international law to the next destination.
“Wherever the Royal Navy operate, they do so in full compliance with international laws and norms and exercise their rights to freedom of navigation and overflight provided by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). HMS Richmond is no exception.”
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The UK undertook the move, which has been seen as an act of provocation, in a bid to exercise freedom of navigation rights on the high seas.
Britain has been keen to increase its presence in the region as part of a “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific area as part of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy announced this year.
HMS Queen Elizabeth itself remained near Guam and did not follow the same route, after months of deliberation by senior military chiefs and ministers.
If the aircraft carrier were to have followed suit – this would have been considered a much more aggressive move on Britain’s behalf.
A defence source told The Times: “There was considerable interest from the Chinese navy.
“All the interactions have been safe and professional and engagement over the radio was cordial.”
Shi Yi, the spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army’s East Theatre Command, said the command mobilised naval and air forces to follow the British ship.
He said: “The British side has taken the trouble to gain a ‘sense of existence.
“This kind of behaviour harbours evil intentions and damages peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
He added: “The troops of the command are always on high alert to resolutely counter all threats and provocations.”
The move from London came as China has been working to increase military, economic and diplomatic pressure on Taipei.
The nation’s leader President Tsai Ing-wen has thus far refused to bow to pressure from Beijing and claim the democratically-run Taiwan is part of China.
Chinese authorities have undertaken more than 500 incursions into Taiwan’s air-defence identification zone so far this year – up from the annual average of 300 in the past.
Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden, Australian PM Scott Morrison and British PM Boris Johnson agreed on a major defence deal aimed at countering China’s expansionist ambitions in the area.
The Aukus deal, as it has been named, also included a pledge by the US and UK to help Australia build a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
President Biden met with Australian, Indian and Japanese leaders at the White House on Friday to discuss initiatives to counter Beijing’s influence on the Indo-Pacific.
A joint statement mentioned the creation of a “Quad infrastructure partnership” and detailed how the four nations intend to meet regularly.
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