BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua expressed regret on Thursday to visiting British finance minister Philip Hammond that the South China Sea issue had harmed ties, after a British warship sailed close to islands claimed by China last August.
China was infuriated by a voyage by the HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship, near the Paracel Islands, calling it a "provocation". The Paracels are occupied entirely by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Prior to that, China and Britain, which have talked of a "golden era" of relations, had agreed to look at the possibility of reaching a "top notch" post-Brexit free trade deal that promised an important political win for the British government.
"It is regrettable that since August last year the relations between our two countries witnessed some fluctuations because of the South China Sea issue and a series of institutional dialogues and cooperation projects had to pause," Hu told Hammond during a meeting in Beijing.
"The South China Sea issue concerns the sovereignty and core interests of China and it is highly important and sensitive in relations between China and Britain," he said, in comments in front of reporters.
"We have noticed that Britain recently has many times said it is dedicated to promoting the golden era in relations between China and Britain, and we hope Britain can earnestly respect China’s core interests and important concerns, and that its actions are in keeping with what it says."
Hammond said he shared Hu's regret that there had been "some difficulties in advancing the positive course of the relationship that our leaders have set out".
"Of course, you understand that the UK takes no position in relation to the issues in the South China Sea," Hammond added, before reporters were ushered from the room.
Hammond is in Beijing to attend the second summit of China's Belt and Road Initiative, championed by President Xi Jinping, which envisions rebuilding the old Silk Road to connect China to Asia and beyond with extensive infrastructure investment.
The United States has frequently sent warships near Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea, where China has been reclaiming land for runways and ports. Some U.S. allies, including Britain, have followed suit.
Freedom of navigation should not be used to infringe upon the rights of other countries, China's navy chief Shen Jinlong said on Wednesday, taking a dig at the United States and its allies.
China regards the patrols as a provocation, as it views almost all of the South China Sea as its territory, although Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines all have competing claims.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Joyce Zhou; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Robert Birsel)