- By Larisa Brown and Didi Tang
Britain has been accused by China of an act of provocation after sending a frigate through the sensitive Taiwan Strait in the first such passage by a Royal Navy warship for more than a decade.
HMS Richmond, part of the Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group, announced it was sailing through the channel separating Taiwan and mainland China yesterday as the UK seeks to exercise freedom of navigation rights on the high seas.
It was shadowed by two Chinese vessels on its journey from Japan to Vietnam. Both Chinese and Taiwanese aircraft were said to be flying overhead, although the UK considered the response by Beijing to be relatively non-confrontational.
A defence source said: “There was considerable interest from the Chinese navy. All the interactions have been safe and professional and engagement over the radio was cordial.”
In public, however, China strongly condemned the journey, saying the behaviour betrayed “evil intentions”.
Notably, however, HMS Queen Elizabeth itself remained near Guam and did not follow the same route, after months of deliberation by senior military chiefs and ministers. Such a move by the aircraft carrier would have been viewed by Beijing as more aggressive than sending one of its escort ships.
On its official Twitter account, HMS Richmond said: “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.”
The survey ship HMS Enterprise passed through the strait in 2019. The last British frigate or destroyer to make the journey was HMS Kent in 2008.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory and has stepped up pressure to try to force the democratically ruled island to accept Chinese sovereignty.
US warships pass through the strait on an almost monthly basis. American allies have generally been reluctant to follow suit. However, the UK is keen to increase its presence in the region as part of a “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific region announced in the integrated defence and foreign policy review, which was published in March.
Shi Yi, the spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army East Theatre Command, said naval and air forces were mobilised to track the British ship. He criticised the UK for “openly hyping” the voyage through the strait.
“The British side has taken the trouble to gain a ‘sense of existence’,” Shi said. “This kind of behaviour harbours evil intentions and damages peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
“The troops of the command are always on high alert to resolutely counter all threats and provocations,” Shi said.
Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, a party-run newspaper, tweeted: “A UK warship passed through Taiwan Straits to provoke China, at a time when Britain is warned to face a ‘difficult winter’ with gasoline shortages and sky-high energy prices. Doesn’t [the] UK feel frustrated and diffident when making such a provocation?”
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In Taipei, the Taiwanese defence minister Chiu Kuo-cheng did not comment directly when asked about the British warship. He said he did not know what missions foreign ships in the Taiwan Strait were carrying out.
“When they pass through the Taiwan Strait our nation’s military will have a grasp of the situation, but will not interfere,” he told reporters.
China has been ramping up its exercises around Taiwan and flies aircraft almost daily into the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defence zone.
A UK Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: “HMS Richmond has navigated the Taiwan Strait, sailing from Japan to Vietnam. Wherever the Royal Navy operate, they do so in full compliance with international law.
“The UK has a range of security interests in the Indo-Pacific and many important bilateral defence relationships. This deployment is a sign of our commitment to regional security.”
The West’s militaries are working on the assumption that China wants to be capable of invading Taiwan by 2027, Larisa Brown writes.
By attempting to normalise the passage of ships through the Taiwan Strait, America and Britain are sending a message that they will not let it do so without a fight.
An invasion, even without the US and other allies being dragged into the conflict, would be no easy feat.
Add to the mix the military might of the US, backed by the Royal Navy, and China’s dream of global dominance could go up in smoke.
The decision to send HMS Richmond, a Type 23 frigate on its maiden voyage, through the strait was made after months of discussions by ministers and officials across government.
The US regularly sends warships through, the most recent sailing coming earlier this month, but this is the first time a British frigate or destroyer has made the journey since 2008.
By doing so, the Royal Navy is exercising the legal right of all ships to pass through an international waterway. It is about demonstrating the UK’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. It is also part of a wider UK government tilt towards the region, and follows the new Aukus pact between the US, UK and Australia.
The Foreign Office was said to be in agreement with the Ministry of Defence that HMS Richmond should brave the strait – but the absence of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, which remained near Guam, speaks volumes about how far the UK might be willing to go to push Beijing’s buttons.