Britain risks Beijing’s wrath with plan to send naval vessel to disputed South China Sea

Warship will exercise its freedom of navigation in area where China’s assertive stance has inflamed tensions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 July, 2017, 1:07pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 July, 2017, 10:35pm

Britain plans to send a warship to the disputed South China Sea next year to conduct freedom of navigation exercises – a move likely to anger Beijing.

Britain will increase its presence in the waters after sending fighter planes for joint exercises with Japan in the region last year, Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, said.

China claims most of the energy-rich sea where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

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“We hope to send a warship to the region next year. We have not finalised exactly where that deployment will take place but we won’t be constrained by China from sailing through the South China Sea,” Fallon said.

“We have the right of freedom of navigation and we will exercise it.”

The presence of a British vessel threatens to increase tensions, escalated by China’s naval build-up and its increasingly assertive stance.

The comments by Fallon on Thursday came after Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson said the country’s two new aircraft carriers would be sent to the region.

Johnson did not specify where exactly the vessels would be sent once operational in 2020.

China’s construction of islands and military facilities in the South China Sea has prompted international condemnation, amid concern Beijing is seeking to restrict free movement and extend its strategic reach.

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Britain’s move could also upset ties between London and Beijing, undermining efforts to shore up what the two governments have called a “golden era” in their relationship as Britain prepares to leave the European Union.

“We flew RAF Typhoons through the South China Sea last October and we will exercise that right whenever we next have the opportunity to do so, whenever we have ships or planes in the region,” Fallon said.

The United States estimates Beijing has added more than 1,300 hectares on seven facilities in the South China Sea over the past three years, building runways, ports, aircraft hangars and communications equipment.

To counter the perceived Chinese aggression, America has conducted regular freedom of navigation exercises that have angered Beijing.

The US sent two bombers over the region earlier this month, coming just a few months after it sent a warship to carry out a manoeuvring drill within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s artificial islands.

China has repeatedly denounced efforts by countries from outside the region to get involved in the South China Sea dispute.

The South China Sea is expected to dominate a regional security meeting in Manila next week, where Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi will meet counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries.

Meeting Asean diplomats in Beijing on Wednesday, Wang told them both sides must “exclude disturbances on the South China Sea issue, and maintain positive momentum”, China’s foreign ministry said.