British defense secretary says warship bound for South China Sea: media

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A British warship will sail through the South China Sea next month to assert freedom-of-navigation rights, British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in remarks published on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO - Britain's Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson arrives in Downing Street in London, Britain, February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

British officials first flagged the voyage six months ago and the journey is likely to stoke tensions with China, who claim control of most of the area and have built military facilities on land features in the sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to the energy-rich sea that carries billion of dollars in trade.

The frigate HMS Sutherland will sail through the region after a visit to Australia, Williamson said in an interview with The Australian newspaper.

“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 said, according to the newspaper.

Williamson did not specify whether it would sail within 12 nautical miles of any disputed territory, according to the paper. Several U.S. Navy ships have made their own freedom-of-navigation journeys that drew stern rebukes from Beijing.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was aware of the comments.

“All countries in accordance with international law enjoy freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. There is no disagreement on this,” Geng said.

“The situation on the South China Sea is also improving with each day. We hope all relevant sides especially those outside the region can respect the efforts made by regional countries,” he added.

“Like I said last week, currently the South China Sea is calm and tranquil and we hope relevant sides don’t try to create trouble out of nothing.”

In the interview, Williamson also encouraged Australia to “do more” in a region where it has conducted surveillance flights, but not freedom-of-navigation voyages of its own.

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

China’s construction of islands and military facilities in the South China Sea has prompted international condemnation, amid concern Beijing is seeking to restrict free movement and extend its strategic reach.

The Association of South East Asian Nations is hoping to expedite negotiations with China on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, Singapore’s defense minister said last week.

However, the initial talks have failed to reach a consensus on making the code binding which has already raised concerns as to its effectiveness.

Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Additional reporting by Philip Wen in BEIJING; Editing by Christian Schmollinger