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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 February 2018

UK risks Beijing anger by sailing warship into South China Sea

HMS Sutherland will make a 'freedom of navigation' voyage through the disputed waters next month

China continues to extend its borders in the South China Sea – a global trade and maritime hub – in a way that no power has done before elsewhere. Reuters
China continues to extend its borders in the South China Sea – a global trade and maritime hub – in a way that no power has done before elsewhere. Reuters

Britain is planning to sail a warship through the disputed South China Sea next month to assert freedom of navigation rights in a move that risks stoking tensions with Beijing.

UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson made the announcement through an Australian newspaper during a trip to Sydney on Tuesday.

Mr Williamson said HMS Sutherland, a Type-23 frigate, will sail through the waters, much of which China claims as its own, after a visit to Australia.

“She’ll be sailing through the South China Sea (on the way home) and making it clear our navy has a right to do that,” he told The Australian newspaper.

Mr Williamson said it was right for countries such as the UK and Australia to “assert our values” in the South China Sea, a lucrative trade route, which is also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

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China has built artificial islands in the disputed territory and have placed military facilities in the sea. The US infuriated Beijing last month by making its own freedom of navigation voyage within 12 nautical miles of the contested Scarborough Shoal.

Mr Williamson did not make clear whether the HMS Sutherland would be doing the same but called on Australia to make its own freedom of navigation journeys.

“World dynamics are shifting so greatly. The US can only concentrate on so many things at once,’’ Mr Williamson 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.”

Beijing has continued to extend its borders in the South China Sea in the face of international condemnation.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang warned global powers should not make “trouble out of nothing”.

“All countries in accordance with international law enjoy freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. There is no disagreement on this,” he said.

“The situation on the South China Sea is also improving with each day. We hope all relevant sides especially those outside the region can respect the efforts made by regional countries,” he added.

“Like I said last week, currently the South China Sea is calm and tranquil and we hope relevant sides don’t try to create trouble out of nothing.”