China Media Says U.K. Still in 'Colonial Days' as Navy Enters Contested Waters

China's hawkish Communist Party tabloid the Global Times has published pre-emptive warnings aimed at the British Royal Navy as its flagship vessel officially entered the South China Sea this week.

In separate op-eds on Sunday and Monday, the newspaper accused Britain of wanting to "revive its past glory" and warned the country against sailing warships into "Chinese territory."

HMS Queen Elizabeth is on its maiden voyage to the Indo-Pacific while escorted by half a dozen warships and a nuclear submarine. The lengthy deployment is seen as a signal of the United Kingdom's "tilt" and commitment to collective security in the region—part of its "Global Britain" foreign policy shift.

On Monday, the Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group sailed through the Singapore Strait and took part in an eight-ship maritime exercise with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), according to statements by the British High Commission and Singapore's Defense Ministry.

The Royal Navy flagship was joined by Britain's HMS Kent and RFA Tidespring, as well as USS The Sullivans and HNLMS Evertsen, of the U.S. Navy and Royal Netherlands Navy, respectively.

Singaporean warships included RSS Intrepid, RSS Unity and RSS Resolution, the bulletins said.

It was the carrier group's first such exercise with the RSN, before the British fleet is expected to sail deeper into the contested South China Sea, with eventual port calls in Japan scheduled for September.

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China claims almost all of the energy-rich sea as part of its expansive "nine-dash line," which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague dismissed in a landmark ruling in 2016 as part of the case Philippines v. China.

The U.K., like the U.S., has recently voiced its support for the court's decision taken under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but China rejected every line of the verdict.

All eyes are on the carrier group in the coming weeks as observers seek to gauge the U.K.'s precise security posture in the region by how far it will go to challenge China's "red lines."

This includes whether any Royal Navy warships directly challenge China's sweeping claims to maritime features in the South China Sea, perhaps in the form of pointed freedom of navigation operations so far only undertaken by the U.S. Navy.

The U.K. "would be prudent not to send warship within 12 miles of Chinese territory," read a headline by the Global Times, referring not to China's coastline but rather waters surrounding the myriad banks and reefs to which it lays claim, such as the Paracel Islands.

"[S]ending a warship within 12 miles of Chinese territory is a direct challenge to China's core interests, which might result in misjudgment," the paper said.

Britain "has always been wily" and "will not easily confront China," the state-owned tabloid quotes Beijing analyst Wang Yiwei as saying. Wang, who is with Renmin University of China, predicts the Royal Navy will carry out symbolic exercises with the U.S. but will not antagonize China.

Yet another Global Times op-ed, however, accuses the U.K. of "still living in its colonial days." Britain's intention is to "provoke China, engage in the so-called freedom of navigation like the U.S. does and demonstrate its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region," the author said.

Last Tuesday, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said from Tokyo that Britain would be permanently deploying two Royal Navy warships to the Indo-Pacific region to support operations with allies.

The day after, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China "firmly opposes the practice of flexing muscles at China," which "undermines China's sovereignty and security, and harms regional peace and stability."

This week's Royal Navy exercises in the South China Sea coincide with a three-day visit to Singapore by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who is the first Biden cabinet official to stop in the city-state.

Austin met Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and its Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in separate calls on Tuesday, according to reports.