Britain’s showdown with the Chinese military in the South China Sea is threatening to derail a post-Brexit trade deal

Chinese President Xi Jinping with UK Prime Minister Theresa May during her state visit in February. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
  • An incident between the British Navy and the Chinese military in the South China Sea could derail UK-China talks over trade after Brexit.
  • That’s the claim of an editorial in China’s state-run China Daily newspaper.
  • A British warship, HMS Albion, angered Beijing after it sailed through waters claimed by China in late August.
  • Britain is seeking to strike trade deals with nations around the world as it leaves the EU.

A showdown between the British and Chinese navies in the disputed South China Sea could derail the two nations’ trading relationship after Brexit, the state-run China Daily newspaper has said.

The incident saw a British warship, HMS Albion, sail through waters claimed by China close to Chinese-occupied territories in the Paracel Islands in late August. The Chinese navy instructed the British vessel to leave the area, and the situation did not escalate further, according to Reuters.

The episode caused outrage from Beijing, which accused the UK of violating international law.

Now, there’s a chance that the tensions caused by the incident could throw a major “spanner in the works” for the relationship between the UK and China once it leaves the EU and seeks to strike new trade deals, the China Daily said.

In an editorial – titled “UK should try and have more than one friend” – the paper accused Britain of carrying out the manoeuvre to try and curry favour with the Trump administration ahead of Brexit by provoking China.

This, it said, could end up harming relations between London and Beijing and threaten any possible trade deal.

“Now that it is eyeing the US as an economic lifeline after it exits the European Union – the United Kingdom is no doubt eager to seize whatever opportunity it can to get into Washington’s good books,” the editorial said.

“China and the UK had agreed to actively explore the possibility of discussing a free trade agreement after Brexit, but any act that harms China’s core interests will only put a spanner in the works,” it continued.

Paracel satellite view
Satellite view of one part of the Paracel Islands in the disputed South China Sea. Google Maps

Britain has made clear that it wishes to strike numerous trade deals with nations around the world after Brexit.

The UK secured its first such deal last week when Prime Minister Theresa May agreed the basics of a new deal with South Africa on a visit to the country.

As China is the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer, the UK is likely to prioritise a strong trading relationship with it to maintain prosperity after Brexit.

China Daily said in its editorial: “During her visit to Beijing early this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to intensify ‘the golden era’ of Sino-UK relations.

“To achieve that, the country should refrain from being Washington’s sharksucker in the South China Sea.”

Sharksucker is a term used in China to describe what might be called a “suck-up” in English.

Theresa may china lion eye opening
Theresa May visited China earlier this year. Dan Kitwood/Getty

The South China Sea is a contentious issue in Chinese politics. Six countries lay overlapping claims to its waters, which are rich in natural gas and through which trillions of dollars of global trade pass each year.

Beijing on Thursday accused the UK of violating Chinese and international law by sailing the ship through the contested waters.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Reuters in a statement: “The relevant actions by the British ship violated Chinese law and relevant international law, and infringed on China’s sovereignty.

“China strongly opposes this and has lodged stern representations with the British side to express strong dissatisfaction.”