BEIJING — Britain will sail a warship through the South China Sea to assert the right of free passage, the country’s defense chief was quoted Tuesday as saying, potentially increasing friction with China, which claims virtually the entire strategic waterway.
The Australian newspaper quoted Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson as saying the anti-submarine frigate HMS Sutherland will sail through the area on its return from a visit to Australia that begins 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,” Williamson was quoted as telling the paper in an interview.
Williamson didn’t say whether the Sutherland would sail near Chinese-controlled islands in the area as American Navy ships have done. Such cruises, known as freedom of navigation operations, routinely draw protests from Beijing.
However, he said Britain fully backs the U.S. missions that take its ships within the 12-nautical mile (22-kilometer) territorial water limit of the Chinese-controlled islands.
“We absolutely support the U.S. approach on this, we very much support what the U.S. has been doing,” Williamson said.
China has carried out extensive land reclamation work on many of the islands and reefs it claims, equipping some with air strips and military installations.
It wasn’t immediately clear how Beijing would respond to the ship’s passage, but Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Tuesday reasserted China’s insistence that its territorial claims do not conflict with international law when it comes to freedom of navigation and overflight.
“Thanks to the concerted efforts by China and littoral countries in the South China Sea, there is no problem with freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea at all,” Geng said.
Despite ongoing tensions with the U.S. and others, Geng said the overall situation in the area is improving.
“We hope the relevant parties, especially those outside the region, can respect regional countries’ efforts,” he said. The area “now is calm and tranquil, we hope the relevant sides will not create troubles out of nothing.”
Williamson, who visited Australia earlier this week, told The Australian that the U.S. could “only concentrate on so many things at once.”
“The U.S. is looking for other countries to do more. This is a great opportunity for the U.K. and Australia to do more, to exercise leadership.”
China and five other governments all claim territory in the South China Sea, home to vital sea lanes, rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of undersea oil and gas. Along with building and militarizing its artificial islands, China in 2016 rejected an international tribunal’s ruling that largely invalidated its claims and has steadily increased naval missions and aerial patrols in the area.
Despite the foreign ministry’s relatively mild comments, the British navy’s actions could cause a rift in relations and lead to economic retaliation from Beijing, said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University. China has long touted what it calls a “golden era” in ties with Britain, and two weeks ago hosted a visit from British Prime Minister Theresa May.
“If this happens, it would be really serious,” Shi said. “The relationship between China and Britain will be significantly harmed for a period of time.”