A British warship will sail from Australia through the disputed South China Sea next month to assert freedom of navigation rights, a senior official said today in a move likely to irk Beijing.
China claims nearly all of the resource-rich waterway and has been turning reefs and islets into islands and installing military facilities such as runways and equipment on them.
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said HMS Sutherland, an anti-submarine frigate, would arrive in Australia later this week.
"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 after a two-day visit to Sydney and Canberra.
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."
In January, Beijing said it had dispatched a warship to drive away a US missile destroyer which had "violated" its sovereignty by sailing close to a shoal in the sea.
Williamson said it was important that US allies such as Britain and Australia "assert our values" in the South China Sea, which is believed to hold vast oil and gas deposits and through which US$5.0 trillion in trade passes annually.
"World dynamics are shifting so greatly. The US can only concentrate on so many things at once," he said.
"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."
When asked on Tuesday about a possible freedom of navigation voyage by the British, China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said all countries have "navigation and overflight freedom in the South China Sea".
China in December defended its construction on disputed islands, which are also claimed by Southeast Asian neighbours, as "normal" after a US think tank released new satellite images showing the deployment of radar and other equipment.
In a separate interview with broadcaster ABC, Williamson warned of the need for vigilance to "any form of malign intent" from China, as it seeks to become a global superpower.
"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 said.
"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."