Fresh threats about UK warships' presence in South China Sea, warning not to provoke China

Chinese state media have issued a fresh warning to the United Kingdom as its warships sail through the South China Sea, but British experts doubt "direct confrontation" is likely.

The UK's HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently leading a flotilla of warships through the contested waters as part of a seven-month deployment through the Mediterranenan, Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. It's movement through the South China Sea is meant to be a "freedom of navigation" exercise as Britain uses the voyage to assert its presence in the Indo-Pacific.

China has long spoken out against other nations sending ships through the South China Sea, much of which it says are its territory despite a 2016 Hague ruling that rejected such a claim

In 2018, the UK's HMS Albion sailed close to the disputed Paracel Islands in the waters, which China, Vietnam and Taiwan claim as their own. While the UK said the ship was in international waters, China said it was within what it considers its territory. The vessel was closely tailed by a Chinese ship and jets flew above. 

On Friday, China's state-owned media outlet Global Times published a new editorial warning the ships to stay in what it calls international waters and that China will not tolerate "provocations in the long term" from US vessels or that of its allies.

"China is likely to escalate its attempts to expel the warships at any time. In the future, stopping such intrusive behavior that violates China's territorial waters is a struggle China is destined to intensify."

The editorial says ships can keep to international maritime channels, but if "those ships want to exert geopolitical pressure and build a wall to contain China along those shipping lines, those warships will face a confrontation from China".

"The very idea of a British presence in the South China Sea is dangerous. We respect the right of passage in the South China Sea granted by international law to military forces of all countries, including the UK."

Any "real action against China" will only result in "defeat", the outlet says. 

But it may all be bold rhetoric from the publisher, with the BBC reporting Veerle Nouwens, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, as saying: "China is not looking for a direct confrontation with a major US ally in the South China Sea. But it will certainly make its intentions clear".

Nouwens expects China to react similarly to how it did to HMS Albion. 

Sidharth Kaushal, also from the Royal United Services Institute, told BBC that "China's actions have been calibrated as being well below the threshold of anything that would start a shooting war".

The carrier group is accompanied by vessels from several countries, like the United States and Netherlands. New Zealand's navy is reportedly expected to join the flotilla at some point in its voyage and partake in an exercise with Five Powers countries later in the year. 

Ships from the group earlier this week participated in an exercise with Singapore's Navy to build "coordination between the two navies" and further their partnership.