Britain’s HMS Sutherland, an anti-submarine frigate, will sail through the South China Sea next month to assert maritime freedom of navigation rights. (Photo by British Royal Navy)
Britain plans to sail a warship to the South China Sea next month at a time of rising tensions between China and the United States, a move likely to anger Beijing.
British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson told The Australian newspaper on Tuesday HMS Sutherland, a Type 23 frigate, will travel through the key trading lane after concluding a visit to Australia.
If Britain went ahead with its plan, it would become what is believed to be only the second country after the United States to assert what it calls freedom of navigation rights in waters, which China controls.
Beijing has, on different occasions, asserted its sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, which serves as a crossing for more $ 5 trillion worth of maritime trade annually. The sea is also claimed in part by the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The US has accused China of implementing what it calls a land reclamation program in the South China Sea by building artificial islands in the disputed areas.
However, Beijing has maintained that Washington meddles in the regional issues and deliberately stirs up tensions in the contested waters.
Williamson told The Australian that the United Kingdom supports “the US approach on this, we very much support what the US has been doing.”
“She’ll (Sutherland) be sailing through the South China Sea and making it clear our navy has a right to do that,” he stated.
“World dynamics are shifting so greatly. The US can only concentrate on so many things at once. 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.”
In a separate interview with American broadcaster ABC, Williamson said, “It’s very important that we demonstrate that these are seas anyone can pass through and we’ll be making sure that the Royal Navy will protect those rights for international shipping.”
“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 added.
“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,” he continued.
The United Sates has long sought to limit China’s maritime influence in the sea by invoking freedom of navigation rights. But now it seems London is also joining Washington in its endeavor.
The US has been taking sides with several of China’s neighboring countries in their territorial disputes in the busy sea, in which 5 trillion dollars in ship-borne trade passes annually.
China, for its part, views the US’s military presence in the region as an instance of meddling and likely to stir regional tensions.
A patrol by US warships in October last year was dubbed “illegal” and “provocative” by the Chinese Defense Ministry.