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British warship latest to sail through South China Sea disputed waters

Type 23 frigate HMS Sutherland departing Portsmouth Naval Base July, 5, 2013. (Brian Burnell)
February 14, 2018

Great Britain will send a warship through the disputed waters of the South China Sea next month to assert freedom of navigation rights, U.K. Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said.

HMS Sutherland, an anti-submarine frigate, will arrive in Australia later this week and travel through the South China Sea on its way back to Britain, Williamson said.

“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.

China has become angered in the past when the U.S. performs Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) in the South China Sea, as China claims that the contested islands there are its own.

The contested islands are claimed by various countries, and China does not own them. Other nations, including Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, also stake claims to the contested waters. However, China has lashed out after the United States performs FONOPs in the South China Sea, saying they are military provocation.

The last American FONOP exercise in August came during a time when tensions were running high in the world regarding North Korea, given Kim Jong Un’s latest threat to bomb Guam, a U.S. territory, and its two tests in July of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The United States would seek China’s cooperation against North Korea.

Williamson did not mention if the British ship would sail within 12 nautical miles of Chinese territory or artificial islands, similar to what the Unites States has done in the past.

“We absolutely support the U.S. approach on this, we very much support what the US has been doing,” he said.

“The U.S. is looking for other countries to do more,” he added. “This is a great opportunity for the U.K. and Australia to do more, to exercise leadership.”

HMS Sutherland is the first Royal Navy warship to sail through the South China Sea since 2014, when the HMS Daring did.

“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,” Williamson had said in a separate interview.

“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,” he explained.

China accused the United States of sending a warship without permission into the South China Sea last month, adding that it would take “necessary measures” to “safeguard its sovereignty.”

The U.S. Navy’s USS Hopper guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of what is known as Scarborough Shoal, a group of disputed islets that Beijing calls Huangyan Island.

In May, the USS Dewey sailed less than 12 nautical miles from Mischief Reef, of the Spratly Islands, which are man-made islands claimed by Beijing.

The May incident was the first time something like this had happened under President Trump’s administration. Relations with China were supposedly on the rise, as the White House wants to ensure China’s cooperation on issues such as North Korea.