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China 'building infrastructure on South China Sea' says Hayton
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Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire region, though this overlaps with rival bids from six of its neighbours. Western powers refuse to accept China’s complete claim on the disputed region and regularly send warships on ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols through the area.
Aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, along with her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, are the largest warships in the history of the Royal Navy.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is accompanied by six other Royal Navy vessels, including a submarine, along with a US Navy destroyer and Dutch frigate.
As it enters the South China Sea, defence sources told the Daily Telegraph they expect to be monitored by Beijing “from the air and beneath the water”.
HMS Queen Elizabeth has already been targeted by Russian surveillance, with one crew member describing it as a game of “cat and mouse”.
In June Russia said it fired warning shots after HMS Defender, part of the carrier group, entered contested waters off the coast of Crimea.
The carrier group is visiting 40 countries on its maiden deployment, including India, Japan and South Korea.
Beginning in May, the flotilla plans to travel a total of 26,000 nautical miles.
The Global Times, a Chinese newspaper close to the ruling Communist Party, accused Britain of seeking to “revive its past glory” with the visit.
It said: “By hitting out in various directions, the UK’s intention is obvious.
“It wants to provoke China, engage in the so-called freedom of navigation like the US does and demonstrate its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Britain is still living in its colonial days.”
Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, told the paper Britain should expect “strong countermeasures” if Chinese forces in the region are provoked.
Speaking to the Telegraph, an MOD spokesperson said the UK is not aiming to be “provocative”.
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They commented: “The Carrier Strike Group is lawfully navigating the South China Sea, just as one third of global shipping does on an annual basis.
“It is taking the most direct route through international waters to conduct exercises with allies and partners in the Philippine Sea.
“As the Defence Secretary said to UK Parliament back in April, we are not going to go to the other side of the world to be provocative. We will be confident, but not confrontational.”
Speaking in Singapore earlier this week, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin insisted Beijing’s claim over the South China Sea has “no basis in international law”.
South China Sea conflict would be 'disastrous' says Hayton
He also accused China of being responsible for “genocide and crimes against humanity” aimed at its Uyghur population, and other Muslim minorities.
Over a million Muslims have reportedly been detained in re-education camps in Xinjiang, in the west of China.
Forced labour, torture and sexual abuse have all been reported in these facilities.
China denies the claims, insisting the camps were built to combat terrorism.
There are no indications the carrier group is planning to go through the highly contested Taiwan Strait, though its return journey has not been announced.
China regards Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory, and has threatened military action to establish control over the island democracy.
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