HMS Sutherland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
HMS Sutherland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A British warship is to sail through the South China Sea next month to assert the principle of freedom-of-navigation, the country’s Defence Secretary revealed on Tuesday.

In a move that is likely to irk Beijing, HMS Sutherland, an anti-submarine frigate, will set sail from Australia, taking a detour through through the resource-rich waterway on its way back to Britain. China claims all of the South China Sea as its sovereign waters, and has been busy militarizing a number of reefs and islets.

Britain’s Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, told The Australian newspaper that HMS Sutherland would “be sailing through the South China Sea and making it clear our navy has a right to do that.”

He would not say whether the frigate would sail within 12 nautical miles of any disputed territory or artificial island built by the Chinese, as US ships have done. He added, however, that: “We absolutely support the US approach on this, we very much support what the US has been doing.”

In January, Beijing said it had dispatched a warship to drive away a US missile destroyer which had “violated” its sovereignty by sailing close to a shoal in the sea.

Williamson said it was important that US allies such as Britain and Australia “assert our values” in the South China Sea, a marginal area of the Pacific Ocean that is believed to hold vast oil and gas deposits and through which US$5.0 trillion in trade passes annually.

While asserting his belief that the Donald Trump White House remains committed to Washington’s network of alliances around the world, he added: “The US is looking for other countries to do more. This is a great opportunity for the UK and Australia to do more, to exercise leadership.”

Britain’s Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay

China in December defended its construction on disputed islands, which are also claimed by Southeast Asian neighbors, as “normal” after a US think tank released new satellite images showing the deployment of radar and other equipment.

In a separate interview with broadcaster ABC, Williamson warned of the need for vigilance to “any form of malign intent” from China, as it seeks to become a global superpower.

“Australia and Britain see China as a country of great opportunities, but we shouldn’t be blind to the ambition that China has and we’ve got to defend our national security interests,” he said.

“We’ve got to ensure that any form of malign intent is countered and we see increasing challenges – it’s not just from China, it’s from Russia, it’s from Iran – and we’ve got to be constantly making sure that our security measures, our critical national infrastructure is protected.”

Williamson is on a flying visit to Sydney and Canberra, in part to support BAE Systems’ bid to supply Australia with new frigates. In his interview with The Australian, he said: “Relations with China are fascinating. China offers great opportunities but it provides great challenges as well. We’ve got to have a mature approach to that ­relationship.”

With reporting from Agence France-Presse

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