Britain has outlined plans to sail a warship through the disputed South China Sea on its way home from Australia, in a move designed to assert freedom of navigation rights through the region.
British officials first flagged the voyage six months ago.
“We’ve got HMS Sutherland currently approaching Australia and after she’s been to Australia, she’ll be going through the South China Sea,” UK’s Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson told the Australian.
Williamson’s comments came as he wrapped up a two-day visit to Sydney and Canberra where he met with key military and political figures.
China claims nearly all of the strategic waters, despite partial counter-claims from Taiwan and several south-east Asian nations including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam. It has been turning reefs and islets into islands and installing military facilities such as runways and equipment on them, according to the reports.
He would not say whether the frigate would sail within 12 nautical miles of a disputed territory or artificial island built by the Chinese, as US ships have done.
But he said: “We absolutely support the US approach on this, we very much support what the US has been doing.”
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, in this regard, said,”All countries in accordance with international law enjoy freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. There is no disagreement on this.”
HMS Sutherland is an anti-submarine warship similar to the design the UK is hoping to build for Australia as part of the $35 billion Future Frigate Program, which is also being contested by Spanish and Italian shipbuilders.>