The United Kingdom Royal Navy's "largest and most powerful" warship has sailed into contested South China Sea waters despite threats from Beijing it will "safeguard its sovereignty".
The UK's Carrier Strike Group set sail in May on a seven-month deployment through the Mediterranenan, Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific, meant to be a symbol of "Global Britain" and the nation's desire to strengthen relations in the region.
Led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth - the Royal Navy's massive "awe-inspiring warship" - 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. It's now been reported by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that HMS Elizabeth has entered the South China Sea.
China says the waters are its territory and has been building fortifications on artificial islands there. In 2016, the Hague rejected the Asian nation's claim to the sea while other nations in the region have challenged China's expansionist behaviour. New Zealand has also raised concern with the "continued militarisation of disputed features and an intensification of destabilising activities at sea".
The United States' Secretary of Defence this week said Beijing's claim to "the vast majority of the South China Sea has no basis in international law".
"That assertion treads on the sovereignty of states in the region. We continue to support the region's coastal states in upholding their rights under international law."
The presence of other nations' warships conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea has been denounced by Beijing. Earlier this year, a defence spokesperson told the SCMP the waters shouldn't "become a sea of great power rivalry dominated by weapons and warships".
"The real source of militarisation in the South China Sea comes from countries outside this region sending their warships thousands of kilometres from home to flex muscles," said Tan Kefei. "The Chinese military will take necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interest as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea."
The SCMP on Tuesday quoted Wu Shicun, the president of China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies, as saying "freedom of navigation" shouldn't be the carrier's purpose.
"If the ship entered within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-controlled islands, Beijing 'must conduct countermeasures to let them pay the price, and prevent other countries from doing the same in the South China Sea'," the SCMP says.
A piece published by Chinese state-owned media outlet the Global Times on Monday says the UK's intention is to "provoke China" and "demonstrate its military presence" by sailing through the waters. It quotes a Chinese military expert as saying if the UK wants to provoke China, "it will inevitably lead to strong countermeasures from China".
In a speech earlier this year, the UK's Ambassador to New Zealand Laura Clarke said the deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth "underlines the UK's global ambition and leadership as an inclusive, outward-facing and free-trading nation, assertive in defending our values and interests and a champion of international rules".