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Royal Navy May Conduct South China Sea FONOPS

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HMS Sutherland, left, during her voyage to Australia (Royal Navy)

By MarEx 2018-02-13 16:11:00

The Royal Navy is planning to send a frigate through unspecified areas of the South China Sea to assert the right to freedom of navigation, the UK's defense secretary told media during a visit to Australia this week. 

“It’s very important that we demonstrate that these are seas anyone can pass through and we’ll be making sure that the Royal Navy will protect those rights for international shipping," said defense secretary Gavin Williamson. “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. We’ve got to ensure that any form of malign intent is countered.” To deliver this message, the HMS Sutherland will be "sailing through the South China Sea and making it clear our Navy has a right to do that," Williamson said.

In response to Williamson's remarks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told media that “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.”

Depending upon the course traveled, the Sutherland's transit could be a routine event, as Geng suggested. An estimated one third of all international shipping passes along the busy sea lanes of the South China Sea, without government interference or diplomatic friction. Williamson declined to answer questions about whether the Sutherland will be sailing out of the lanes and into contentious waters - the areas near the South China Sea islands that are occupied by China and claimed by neighboring nations. If she did, the exercise could be the first time that an allied nation has carried out American-style "freedom of navigation operations" (or FONOPS) in the contested Paracel and Spratly island chains. Williamson indicated that he supports the U.S. Navy's FONOPS program, adding that "the U.S. is looking for other countries to do more."

China vehemently objects to American FONOPS, in which U.S. Navy destroyers transit near or within disputed waters that Beijing claims as its territorial seas. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague has broadly rejected China's sweeping maritime claims in the region, as they are not supported by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea; China does not acknowledge the court's ruling.

The 1997-built Sutherland is a Type 23 Duke-class frigate. The Royal Navy says that she is presently under way to Australia to showcase British naval technology, part of a campaign to convince the Australian government to "buy British" as it closes in on a contract for its next generation of frigates. After departing Australia, she will be operating with allied vessels in support of the effort to "put pressure on North Korea." 

“At a time when North Korea’s illegal weapons programme is causing global concern, the deployment . . . is a clear demonstration of the UK’s commitment to the peace and prosperity of the region," Williamson said in an announcement of the Sutherland's itinerary.