A British warship will sail from Australia through the disputed South China Sea next month, raising fears of a hostile response from China.

British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has confirmed the HMS Sutherland, a Type 23 frigate of the British Royal Navy, will enter the waters as a defiant means of demonstrating that the sea is international.

"She'll be sailing through the South China Sea and making it clear our navy has a right to do that," Williamson told the Australian.

He didn't specify whether the voyage would come within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island, but he did commend the United States, which has done so.


Williamson said it was important that the US, Britain, Australia and other countries "assert our values" in the South China Sea.

Britain's defiance ties into the Trump administration's recent attempts to push security ties between the "Quad" — an alliance made up of the US, India, Japan and Australia to squash China's rising influence in the Pacific.

Williamson added that Australia needs to step up its game in the region.

"World dynamics are shifting so greatly. The US can only concentrate on so many things at once,'' he 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."

Williamson has also warned that Australia needs to remain vigilant over China's rise.

"I think we've always got to be vigilant to any form of malign intent. 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 told the ABC.

China's interests in the South China Sea remain a controversial global issue.
In a recent interview with news.com.au, Dr Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in Defence Strategy and Capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, similarly warned that China was "not benevolent".

"China is seeking to overturn the rules of international order. It's against the principles Western liberal democracies hold dear — free speech, free thought," he said.


"The more powerful China gets, the more challenging it is for us. I think we have to work hard to keep the Americans engaged and to build relations with Japan and India to counterbalance China's rise."

It's yet to be seen whether the HMS Sutherland will provoke a response from China, but recent history suggests it's likely.

A few months ago, Beijing criticised the Turnbull government for raising concerns about the "pace and scale" of China's developments in the region.
"Australia is not directly involved in the South China Sea issue," said China's foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang.

"So we would like to advise Australia to abide by its commitment and stop making irresponsible remarks on the South China Sea issue."

In 2016, the Communist Party's mouthpiece the Global Times launched a scathing attack on the Australian government after it decided to support an international tribunal over the South China Sea.

It warned that if Australia involved itself in the disputed waters, the country would "be an ideal target for China to warn and strike".

The media outlet said "China must take revenge and let it [Australia] know it's wrong".