HMS Albion passed by the Paracel Islands en-route to Vietnam asserting “freedom of navigation rights” according to Reuters‘ sources.
The 22,000 ton warship packed with Royal Marines docked in Hanoi on Monday following deployment in and around Japan.
One source told Reuters the Chinese sent a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the Albion but both sides remained calm, another said it did not enter the territorial seas around any features in the disputed region.
They said the move was to demonstrate that Britain did not recognise China‘s excessive claims to Paracel Island which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
In a statement, a Royal Navy spokesperson said: “HMS Albion exercised her rights of freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.”
In June, the UK Defence Secretary announced HMS Albion would be one of three warships being deployed to the area “to send the strongest of signals” to countries that “don‘t play by the rules”.
During the speech in Singapore, Gavin Williamson said the warships outlined the “critical” importance of defending freedom of navigation in the region.
It followed warnings to China by if it continued to militarise the South China Sea.
Image: US Defence Secretary James Mattis has condemned China over its 'militarisation' of the South China Sea
HMS Albion‘s recent challenge comes after the United States said it would like to see more international participation in such actions.
In April, warships from Australia had a close “encounter” with the Chinese navy in the contested sea.
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.
Tension have risen over Beijing‘s South China Sea development where it has reclaimed reefs and islands and built runways, hangars and missile systems.
It has denied that its presence has anything to do with militarisation or that it poses a threat to the region.
It blames Washington for militarising the area with its navigation patrols.