Beijing has staked “unlawful and excessive” claims over international waters in the highly contested region, revealing a “deeply worrying strategic intent”, experts from the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) think-tank said. Chinese forces have built and occupied a series of man-made islands, developing them into fortresses bristling with missile batteries, troop barracks and even airstrips. But despite being more than 6,000 miles away, the South China Sea is vital to Britain’s long-term interests, the HJS says, with £97billion worth of UK imports and exports passing through the region.
And the best way to help maintain freedom of navigation for vessels in the area is to deploy Royal Navy warships - despite the risk of “inadvertent escalation” with Chinese vessels.
Tensions in the South China Sea have escalated in recent years following Beijing’s unchecked expansion which has seen the Asian superpower transform dozens of reefs into heavily fortified outposts.
In the disputed Spratly Islands, China has developed a trio of bases, dubbed the ‘Big Three’ by analysts.
The islands and surrounding reefs are the subject of a bitter and long-running territorial dispute, with China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines all laying claim to parts of the archipelago.
Britain must be prepared to face down an increasingly aggressive China in the South China Sea (Image: GETTY IMAGES)
China has claimed large swathes of the South China Sea (Image: GOOGLE MAPS)
But China has seized control by