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British navy warship sails near disputed islands

The Albion docked in Tokyo last month. France has also said its ships would undertake sail-bys in certain disputed waters on freedom-of-navigation voyages.

Hong Kong

A BRITISH Royal Navy warship sailed close to islands claimed by China in the disputed South China Sea in order to assert freedom of navigation, Reuters reported, citing two people familiar with the matter.

The amphibious warship Albion passed by the Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands in recent days, Reuters said. It was on its way to Ho Chi Minh City, where it docked on Monday, following a deployment in and around Japan, it said.

The island chain is also claimed by Vietnam, which in May asked China to end bomber aircraft drills in the area, calling it a violation of its sovereignty.

China claims more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea based on a 1947 map showing vague dashes - the so-called Nine-Dash Line.

Five other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have also staked claims in the area, one of the world's busiest trading routes.

An international arbitration panel in the Hague ruled in 2016 that China's claims have no legal standing.

It is at least the second time this year that the Royal Navy has performed sail-bys close to - but not within - the 12-nautical-mile territorial zone China claims around the features it occupies in the waters.

In June, three Royal Navy warships - including the Albion - were sent to the South China Sea to send the "strongest of signals" to countries that don't "play by the rules", the UK's Daily Star newspaper reported, citing Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.

The Albion's latest manoeuvres demonstrate that the UK doesn't recognise excessive maritime claims around the islands, Reuters reported, citing an unidentified person.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said on Thursday: "The British navy has violated international and Chinese laws, infringing China's sovereignty.

"China strongly urges Britain to stop similar provocations so as to keep stability and peace."

Beijing dispatched a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the Albion during its latest pass, Reuters reported, but both sides remained calm during the encounter.

Mr Williamson foreshadowed the navy's coming voyages during a February visit to Australia. There, he said, another British ship - the Sutherland - would sail through the South China Sea, "making it clear our navy has a right to do that".

France's Defence Minister Florence Parly said at June's Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore that French and British naval forces would sail together through "certain areas" in the South China Sea.

The US routinely conducts freedom-of-navigation operations near the islets, rocks and reefs occupied by Beijing. BLOOMBERG