London and Beijing began talks last month about a post-Brexit trade deal.
But this may be under threat after China’s state foreign ministry claimed there was a “provocation” when 22,000-tonne amphibious assault ship carrying Royal Marines, HMS Albion, cruised past the Parcel Islands last month on her way to Vietnam.
An editorial in China Daily said: “China and the UK had agreed actively to explore the possibility of discussing a free-trade agreement after Brexit.
“Any act that harms China’s core interests will only put a spanner in the works.”
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea as its territory.
But it is contested by Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and others.
The Parcel Islands are occupied solely by China but are claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
China has installed runways and missile systems across the sea.
It claims these are for self-defence or civilian use.
The US send military vessels close to contested islands as part of freedom of navigation exercises.
Washington also encourages its allies to counter Chinese military expansion in the region.
The China Daily accused the UK of being “eager to seize whatever opportunity it can to get into Washington’s good books” and that it is the “reckless actions by the British navy to challenge China’s sovereignty can only be explained by the country wanting to curry favour with the US”.
Beijing’s claims to the reefs close to the Philippines was rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2016.
But China rejects any challenge to its sovereignty.
Official Brexit talks with China can only take place once the UK formally leaves next year.