Robert Harneis-TDO- (FRANCE)- British and French warships are to accompany the United States navy in sailing through waters claimed by China. British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the UK has deployed three ships to the Asia-Pacific this year to send the “strongest of signals” on the importance of freedom of navigation.

His comments on board the Royal Navy’s HMS Sutherland docked in Singapore, come a day after General James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense, accused China of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea and warned there would be “consequences” if it continued.

The surge of British warships, which include the Sutherland - an anti-submarine frigate - the HMS Albion and HMS Argyll, is the first deployment of three vessels to the region in a generation.

They are to conduct “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, where Beijing is continuing to build up military fortifications in disputed waters.

“The reason that they are here and the reason that we are visiting is to send the strongest of signals. We believe that countries should play by the rules,” said Mr. Williamson.

Williamson declined to answer whether British ships would sail within 12 nautical miles of a disputed territory or artificial island built by the Chinese, as US ships have done.

At the end of May China’s military said it had dispatched warships to challenge two US Navy vessels that had passed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, an archipelago in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam.

China, whose claim to the Paracel Islands is not recognized, argued that passage within 12 nautical miles constitutes a violation of the country’s territory under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.

Mr. Williamson stressed that the UK, France and Australia had also been asserting their rights of passage in the region. “We’ve been sending a clear message to all that the freedom of navigation is absolutely critical,” he said.

The Chinese will no doubt appreciate a lecture on how they should “play by the rules”. It is only 21 years ago that Britain returned its Hong Kong colony to China after holding it for 155 years following the First Opium War in 1841, in which they compelled the Chinese to continue importing opium and surrender Hong Kong to Britain as a base. It is less than two months since the US, Britain and France bombarded Syrian airfields without the consent of the United Nations.

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