British Defence Secretary warns Australia to remain vigilant to China intent


Britain has outlined plans to sail a warship through the disputed South China Sea on its way home from Australia, in a move created to assert freedom of navigation rights through the region.

Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, said that HMS Sutherland, a Type 23 frigate, would travel through the disputed waters after a deployment to the Pacific.

Mr Williamson said it was right for countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia to "assert our values" in the South China Sea, a lucrative trade route, which is also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China claims almost all of the resource-rich waterway and has been turning reefs and islets into islands and installing military facilities such as runways and equipment on them. After one such freedom of navigation operation last summer China said it was a "serious political and military provocation".

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Mr Williamson did not make clear whether the HMS Sutherland would be doing the same but called on Australia to make its own freedom of navigation journeys.

Speaking to The Australian, he added: 'World dynamics are shifting so greatly.

But Williamson said in an interview with Australian media that the USA would not be able to adequately focus on the issue alone, saying that Washington "was looking for other countries to do more".

Forming an agreement for a joint project would be extremely complex and sensitive as both countries claim jurisdiction of the site of the oil and gas reserves, so sharing them could be deemed legitimizing the other side's claim, or even ceding sovereign territory.

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But he stressed that it was important that along with the US, Britain and Australia also "assert our values" in the South China Sea.

"China fully respects the Philippines' continental shelf rights over Benham Rise", said Geng Shuang, the Chinese spokesman.

In Beijing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Wednesday that China has been participating in activities related to proposing names for undersea features "in accordance with global practice " and the rules of the worldwide hydrographic body. "There is no disagreement on this", he said.

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

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Both sides touted progress they had made following the meeting, with the Philippines eager to demonstrate that it is successfully managing this aspect of ties despite domestic and worldwide criticism, and China looking to once again advance its "cooling down" narrative in the South China Sea into 2018 (See: "Beware the Illusion of South China Sea Calm").