A Royal Navy warship will sail through the South China Sea in an effort to assert freedom of navigation rights in waters where Beijing is increasingly extending its control.
HMS Sutherland, a Type 23 frigate, will travel through the key trading lane after concluding a visit to Australia, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced.
China claims large areas of the South China Sea and has been bolstering its military deployments there, including reclaiming land on reefs and atolls to build air bases.
Mr Williamson made the announcement during a visit to Australia to meet his counterpart Marise Payne in Sydney, where they discussed North Korea, cyber warfare and terrorism. The trip was also designed to push Australia to buy the UK’s Type 23 replacement, the BAE-built Type 26.
He told The Australian: “[Sutherland] will be sailing through the South China Sea and making it clear our navy has a right to do that.
“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.”
The US Navy also conducts freedom-of-navigation cruises in the South China Sea as a way of disputing Chinese influence.
Asked whether Sutherland would sail within 12 nautical miles – the UN-defined distance indicating territorial waters – of disputed areas or artificial Chinese islands, Mr Williamson declined to comment but added: “We absolutely support the US approach on this, we very much support what the US has been doing.”
Last summer the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Stethem sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel chain. China called the move a “serious political and military provocation” within its territorial waters.
Mr Williamson added in an interview with broadcaster ABC: “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.
“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.”
The UK’s frigates, which specialise in anti-submarine warfare, also have a prominent role in drug interdiction and other policing at sea.
Sutherland, which entered service in 1997, has previously been tasked with shadowing Russian Navy vessels as they passed through the English Channel, and escorting the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth during her first sea trials.
She is currently on a seven-month deployment to Australia, the Far East and and the Gulf.
Australia, the UK and the US, along with New Zealand and Canada, form the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing alliance.
In December 2016 the US announced it would deploy its top-of-the-line stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor, to Australia as part of a plan to maintain its “enduring interests” in the region.
Then-head of the US Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris – now Donald Trump’s pick to be his ambassador to Australia – signed an agreement with Canberra to base enough US military assets in the country to constitute a “credible combat power” amid mounting tensions in the South China Sea.
Mr Harris has been outspoken about China’s “increasingly assertive” moves in the region while Mr Trump has previously accused Beijing of pursuing a “repressive vision” and designing economic policies to weaken America.