In this handout picture retrieved on February 10, 2016 from the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) via Defence News Imagery the British Royal Navy Type 23 frigate, HMS Iron Duke, is pictured at sea firing her Harpoon anti-ship missile system.
In this handout picture retrieved on February 10, 2016 from the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) via Defence News Imagery the British Royal Navy Type 23 frigate, HMS Iron Duke, is pictured at sea firing her Harpoon anti-ship missile system.

China accused Britain of "provocation" after a Royal Navy warship sailed near islands claimed by Beijing in the disputed South China Sea. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said Britain had "violated international and Chinese laws" when the HMS Albion sailed by the Paracel Islands on Aug. 31. 

"The Chinese Navy legally verified the ship and warned it to leave," Hua told a news briefing Thursday. 

Vietnam and Taiwan also claim the islands, also known as Xisha in Chinese and Hoang Sa in Vietnamese.

Reuters news agency, which first reported the story Thursday, said Albion's maneuver was an assertion of freedom of navigation. The U.S. Navy has also sent ships and planes to the disputed area to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations. 

Britain and France announced in June that they would send ships to the region for similar exercises.

China claims a large swathe of the South China Sea, extending from its southern coast almost to Malaysia, a much larger area than the internationally recognized territorial limit of 22 nautical kilometers (12 nautical miles).

China's claim is contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.