Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed HMS Sutherland, a Type 23 frigate, would sail through the South China Sea, on the way back from a deployment in the Pacific, amid an international row between China, which has made territorial claims on islands in the area, and other nearby nations.
US warships have previously drawn protests from Beijing by travelling within the 12-mile Chinese territorial waters around the disputed islands but Mr Williamson said Britain “supports the US approach on this”.
He said: “HMS Sutherland will be sailing through the South China Sea and making it clear our Navy has a right to do that.”
The frigate and her fellow Type 23 HMS Argyll are heading to the Pacific “to continue the pressure campaign on North Korea”, the Ministry of Defence said.
Mr Williamson met Australian counterpart Marise Payne and defence industry minister Christopher Pyne to discuss post-Brexit defence business opportunities, including the Type 26 Global Combat Ship, the successor to the Type 23, which has been shortlisted for the Australian government’s Future Frigate Programme.
Mr Williamson said US requests for allies “to do more” were “a great opportunity for the UK and Australia to do more, to exercise leadership”.
The Defence Secretary said: “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.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “Thanks to the concerted efforts by China and littoral countries in the South China Sea, there is no problem with freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea at all.”
The move comes less than a fortnight after Prime Minister Theresa May visited Beijing for talks with both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
Mrs May said her visit had marked Britain and China “opening a new chapter in our golden era”, with commercial deals totalling £9 billion signed.
These included a five-year export drive by Aston Martin worth £600 million and involving more than 20 showrooms for the luxury cars across China, as well as plans by Staffordshire-based Busy Bees to open a string of childcare nurseries including an international pre-school in Shanghai.