Hong Kong (CNN)The South China Sea has been a hotbed of naval activity this week, with a British aircraft carrier strike group, an American surface action group, and forces from China's People's Liberation Army all staging exercises in the contested waterway.
UK's HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier pictured in South China Sea
The British Royal Navy's aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth has been the center of attention, with state-run Chinese media outlets and diplomats accusing Britain of stirring up trouble in the disputed waters at the behest of the United States.
In a statement provided to CNN, a spokesperson from Britain's Ministry of Defense said the carrier strike group was lawfully navigating the South China Sea, "just as one third of global shipping does on an annual basis." The statement added the strike group was taking the most direct route through international waters to conduct exercises with allies and partners in the Philippine Sea.
"As the Defense Secretary said to United Kingdom 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," said the spokesperson's statement.
On Friday, a series of photos posted on the United States Navy's website showed US Marine Corps jets involved in operations off the British carrier, with the dateline of the South China Sea.
"A free and open Indo-Pacific region that is peaceful and stable is vital to ensuring greater prosperity for the region and the world," the photo captions said.
Ten US F-35 warplanes are deployed aboard the British carrier, the byproduct of an agreement between Washington and London to harmonize and integrate the operation of their aircraft carrier fleets. A US Navy destroyer and Dutch frigate are also part of the strike group.
In a previous statement, Britain's Ministry of Defense described the strike group as the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave the UK in a generation. The group sailed from Britain in May and is expected to go as far as South Korea before heading back home in the fall.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory. Beginning in 2014, it has worked to turn numerous obscure reefs and sandbars throughout the waterway into man-made artificial islands heavily fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems, prompting outcry from other governments with competing claims.
The arrival of the strike group has prompted anger in China. Writing in Chinese state media, Wu Shicun, president of China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies, described the UK carrier deployment as an attempt to "relive the glory days of the British Empire."
"The latest voyage of British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth is not simply what London calls a crossing of South China Sea waters in accordance with international law, but is a carefully planned trick serving multiple purposes," read an article from Wu, posted on the PLA's English-language website.
"It's no secret that the UK has been acting in complicity with the US on the South China Sea is