UK warship to sail through disputed South China Sea

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An aerial view of China occupied Subi Reef at Spratly Islands in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Francis Malasig/Pool

The United Kingdom is looking to assert freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea by sending a warship to sail through the disputed waters next month.

According to British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson, the HMS Sutherland, an anti-submarine frigate, will arrive in Australia this week, and it will sail from Australia to the South China Sea.

“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 said during a visit to Australia.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea and has been in a building binge in the area, turning reefs and islets into islands with runways and various other facilities and buildings. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have claims on the waterway, which holds vast oil and gas deposits.

The state-run Chinese tabloid Global Times accused U.K. of trying to grab attention with its plans to sail through the South China Sea. “By acting tough against China, Britain’s Ministry of Defence is trying to validate its existence and grab attention,” the paper said.

The paper also warned the Royal Navy to behave modestly when passing through the South China Sea.

It is not clear whether the British warship will follow the United States’ move of sailing within 12 nautical miles of a disputed territory or an artificial island built by China. However, Williamson emphasized that the U.K. supports the U.S.’ approach.

In January, a U.S. missile destroyer, USS Hopper, sailed near a shoal in the South China Sea, a move that angered China, who viewed it as a violation of its sovereignty. Beijing said that it has dispatched a warship to drive away the American ship. China also warned the United States not to threaten the peace and stability in the area with such operations.