Beijing has blasted Britain for sending the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group into the South China Sea, threatening action if it does not "remain restrained and obey the rules".
In a terse warning, an editorial in state newspaper the Global Times made clear that Beijing wouldn’t hesitate to make an example out of Britain – “to execute one as a warning to a hundred”.
“China is likely to escalate its attempts to expel the warships at any time. In the future, stopping such intrusive behavior that violates China’s territorial waters is a struggle China is destined to intensify.”
Earlier this week The Telegraph revealed that Britain's aircraft carrier had entered the contested waters on Tuesday.
It is thought that strike group will not be sailing through the contested Taiwan Strait on its operational maiden voyage while in the area, although its returning route has not yet been confirmed.
One defence source said it was anticipated that China would watch the group's movements from the air, as well as under the water, although they cautioned they expected it would be smoother than when Russia reacted to HMS Defender as she passed through the Black Sea last month.
When The Telegraph was granted access to HMS Queen Elizabeth in Cyprus recently, there was a heavy amount of surveillance of the aircraft carrier by Russia, which included in the sky, below the water and on the surface. At the time it was described by those on board as a game of “cat and mouse”.
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, set the scene earlier this month for a confrontation with Beijing when he said the deployment would sail on any route defined as legitimate under international law.
Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of Defence Select Committee, told The Telegraph: "We must hold our nerve. China is now, after having ten years able to operate at will in the South China Sea, feeling the might of the international community questioning its false right over what are clearly international waters. This is the beginning of the ratcheting up tensions with China as they see this as their backyard and are using this harsh language to intimidate."
China claims the South China Sea, despite an international court ruling in 2016 that it did not belong to the nation. Beijing has grown increasingly assertive as it builds military bases and airport runways on constructed islands in the disputed waters.
'The very idea of a British presence in the South China Sea is dangerous'
The editorial in the Global Times said the strike group entered the sea on Sunday as part of the "UK's effort to show its presence in the region".
“We advise US allies to be particularly cautious, keep a sufficient distance from China’s red lines, and refrain from pushing ahead,” said the editorial.
"They must be bluntly told that if their warships rampantly behave as the US military does in the South China Sea, they will more likely become an example of China defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity - just as a popular Chinese phrase indicates: To execute one as a warning to a hundred."
It also said the "very idea of a British presence in the South China Sea is dangerous".
"If the UK wants to play the role of coercing China in the South China Sea, then it is behaving badly. If it makes any substantial moves, it is looking for trouble.
"We seriously warn this group: They are obliged to remain restrained and obey the rules. Please follow the current international shipping lanes and stay at least 12 nautical miles away from the Chinese islands and reefs."
Mr Wallace has declined to say whether the fleet would breach China's 12-mile zone.
The tensions come after Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said there was a global "battle for hearts and minds" to attempt to reduce China's influence on international organisations.
'Confident but not confrontational'
Speaking in the Commons earlier this month, Mr Raab said he was "very familiar with the routing" of the group and had discussed the deployment with his Chinese counterpart, insisting it was being done in a "confident but not confrontational" way.
China has displayed increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea, where a number of South East Asian countries all lay claim to the rocks, reefs and waters.
Beijing has continually ramped up its maritime push in these resource-rich waters — including into the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait, angering Japan and Taiwan — while the world has been busy battling the coronavirus pandemic.
It has recently deployed its “little blue men,” a maritime militia that helps China assert its territorial claims.
The concern has long been that Beijing could cut off access to the South China Sea – a key international shipping route — as a way to squeeze nations during diplomatic rows.
An MoD spokesperson said: “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.”