Britain will sail a warship through the South China Sea next month to assert maritime freedom of navigation rights, becoming what is believed to be only the second country after the United States to do so.
The naval operation, to be conducted by HMS Sutherland, an anti-submarine frigate that is en route to Australia, is bound to irritate China.
"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," the United Kingdom's Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said on Tuesday (Feb 13) during a visit to Sydney.
In an interview published in The Australian newspaper, Mr Williamson said it was important for Britain, the US, Australia and other countries to "assert our values" in the South China Sea, a vital trade route and lucrative fishing area that Beijing claims much of as its own territorial waters.
He did not clarify whether HMS Sutherland would sail within 12 nautical miles of disputed territory or artificial islands built by China, an activity carried out by US warships that has angered Beijing.
But Mr Williamson said:"We absolutely support the US approach on this, we very much support what the US has been doing.
"World dynamics are shifting so greatly. The US can only concentrate on so many things at once,'' added Mr Williamson. "The US is looking for other countries to do more. This is a great opportunity for the UK and Australia to do more, to exercise leadership."
The UK mission follows a US freedom of navigation operation last month within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop contested by both China and the Philippines.
Beijing reacted angrily to the US mission, dispatching a warship to drive away the USS Hopper, a guided missile destroyer. China said the USS Hopper had "violated" its sovereignty by sailing close to the shoal.
China also warned the US military not to threaten peace and stability by conducting such operations.
The planned UK operation in the South China Sea follows a commitment made by Britain last year to assert freedom of navigation rights in the region.
"We hope to send a warship to the region next year. 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," then-Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said in an interview in July 2017.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had also said last year that Britain planned to deploy two new aircraft carriers to the disputed waters "to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways, which are absolutely vital for world trade."
Mr Johnson's remarks prompted a sharp rebuke from China, which said that "some countries" from outside the region "insist on stirring up trouble while the situation is trending towards calm in the South China Sea".
"Regardless of what banner these countries or individuals fly under, or what excuses they may peddle, their record of the same kind of sanctimonious interference in the affairs of other regions, leaving behind chaos and humanitarian disaster, prompts countries in this region to maintain a high degree of vigilance," it said.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, noted that so far, only the US has performed freedom of navigation operations, or FonOps, in the South China Sea, although there has been debate about whether the Australian navy would also get involved.
France last year said that it was keen to coordinate the FonOps among fellow European Union nations in the South China Sea.
Prof Shi noted that the US, Britain and Australia shared a common position on the South China Sea, which contrasted with China's.
"We can't take this statement as a formal commitment, but if it really happens then it would have a very bad influence on China-Britain relations," he told The Financial Times.
"China might take some retaliatory steps with regards to trade."
Euan Graham, an analyst at Sydney's Lowy Institute think-tank, told FT: "This is not a show of force by the UK, and I doubt they will sail within 12 nautical miles of Chinese defence installations on disputed islands in the region,.
"Rather, it is an opportunity to show the flag, a marker of British sovereignty, which says it isn't just the US undertaking these operations and upholding the rule of law."
Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, added that while the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allowed for naval ships of one country to pass peacefully through territorial waters of another country, "what Britain thinks of as peaceful, maybe China will not think of as peaceful".
In a separate interview with Australia's national broadcaster, ABC, on Tuesday, Mr Williamson warned of the need for vigilance against "any form of malign intent" from China as it seeks to become a global superpower.
"Australia and Britain see China as a country of great opportunities, but we shouldn't be blind to the ambition that China has, and we've got to defend our national security interests," he said.
"We've got to ensure that any form of malign intent is countered, and we see increasing challenges – it's not just from China, it's from Russia, it's from Iran – and we've got to be constantly making sure that our security measures, our critical national infrastructure, is protected."