British warship sails near Chinese-controlled islands in South China Sea

Military vehicles are seen in the loading dock of the HMS Albion the British Royal Navy flagship amphibious assault ship after the ship's arrival at Harumi Pier in Tokyo

Military vehicles are seen in the loading dock of the HMS Albion the British Royal Navy flagship amphibious assault ship after the ship's arrival at Harumi Pier in Tokyo

In retaliation, China dispatched a frigate and two military helicopters to confront the HMS Albion.

The 22,000 ton warship packed with Royal Marines docked in Hanoi on Monday following deployment in and around Japan.

Since 2015, the US Navy has been conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the area to ensure access to key shipping and air routes - and has urged key global allies to do the same.

The vessel was reportedly more than twelve nautical miles away from the island (s) when it passed, which is the internationally recognized distance demarcating an offshore territorial zone.

The United States regularly engages in freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, sailing warships close to Chinese-controlled islands.

Britain does not recognise China's claims on the Paracel Islands and the United States has also carried out Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea.

Foreign aircraft and vessels in the region are routinely challenged by Chinese naval ships and monitoring stations on the fortified islands, sources have said previously.

"China strongly opposes this and has lodged stern representations with the British side to express strong dissatisfaction", it said.

Around $3 trillion of shipborne trade passes through the hotly disputed area each year with China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei all staking a claim.

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FONOPs - as they are known - challenge territorial claims on the world's oceans and maintain worldwide law.

The Royal Navy said it was conducting a freedom of navigation exercise "in full compliance with worldwide law".

"But China will be displeased as it suggests that US allies are responding to Washington's appeals".

Tension have risen over Beijing's South China Sea development where it has reclaimed reefs and islands and built runways, hangars and missile systems.

A naval source said the ship - which was on its way to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - was challenging Beijing's "excessive claims" in the region.

Beijing on Thursday protested against Britain's move to send a warship close to islands it claims in the South China Sea, calling it a "provocative action" that "infringed on China's sovereignty".

Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, said in June that deployment of the three ships was meant to send the "strongest of signals" on the importance of freedom of navigation.

"In the recent period, through the joint efforts of China and Asean countries, the situation in the South China Sea has been stabilised and maintains a positive momentum", Ren said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

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