SYDNEY • Britain plans to send a warship to the disputed South China Sea next year to conduct freedom of navigation exercises, said Defence Secretary Michael Fallon yesterday, in a move that is likely to anger Beijing.
Britain would increase its presence in the waters, after having sent four British fighter planes for joint exercises with Japan in the region last year, said Mr Fallon.
China claims most of the energy-rich sea, where other Asian countries - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam - also have claims.
"We hope to send a warship to the region next year," Mr Fallon told Reuters.
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"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.
"We have the right of freedom of navigation, and we will exercise it."
The presence of a British vessel could stoke tensions already escalated by China's naval build-up and its increasingly assertive stance.
China's construction of islands and military facilities in the South China Sea has drawn international condemnation, amid concern that Beijing could be seeking to restrict free movement and extend its strategic reach.
Britain's move could 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 heads towards a divorce with the European Union.
"We flew Royal Air Force 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," said Mr Fallon.
The United States estimates that Beijing has added more than 1,300ha on seven features in the South China Sea over the past three years, building runways, ports, aircraft hangars and communications equipment.
To counter the perceived Chinese aggression, the US has conducted regular freedom of navigation exercises, which have angered Beijing.
Earlier this month, the US sent two bombers over the region - just a few months after it had 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 to be held in Manila next week, during which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will meet his counterparts from Asean.
Meeting Asean diplomats in Beijing on Wednesday, Mr Wang told them that both sides must "exclude disturbances on the South China Sea issue, and maintain positive momentum", according to China's Foreign Ministry.