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U.K. to send “colossal” new warships to the South China Sea

The U.K. government plans to send two “colossal” warships to the South China Sea next year in a “freedom of navigation operation” sure to infuriate Beijing. Announcing the plans Thursday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the U.K. was taking the decision “not because we have enemies in the region but because we believe in upholding the rule of law.”

“One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system,” Johnson told reporters in Sydney Thursday.

U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon added: “We won’t be constrained by China from sailing through the South China Sea, we have the right of freedom of navigation and we will exercise it.”

In what will be seen as a saber-rattling exercise, the U.K. move follows in the footsteps of the U.S. navy, which earlier this month sailed a warship close to a disputed island in the territory. China claims ownership over large parts of the South China Sea — one of the world’s busiest trade routes — and its program of island-building and militarization has unsettled western powers.

China has yet to react to the U.K.’s plans. After the USS Stethem sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea earlier this month, Beijing dispatched military vessels and fighter planes, warning that it would take all means necessary to defend its sovereignty.

Last year, the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague ruled that China had no legal basis for its historic claim, a decision Beijing angrily rejected.