Britain is planning to send a warship next year to the heavily contested South China Sea to exercise its "right" to freedom of navigation.

The move comes after the Royal Navy sent four of its fighter planes to the region last year where it conducted joint exercises with Japan, Defence Minister Michael Fallon said on Thursday (27 July).

It is not clear which part of the mineral-rich sea the British warships will sail through.

"We hope to send a warship to region next year. We have not finalised exactly where that deployment will take place but we won't be constrained by China from sailing through the South China Sea," Fallon told Reuters.

"We have the right of freedom of navigation and we will exercise it."

Sending the warship to China's doorsteps could strain ties between the two sides and undermine efforts between the two governments to establish a "golden era" of relations and trade before Brexit. Britain is already reported to be wooing Beijing to increase trade.

"We flew RAF [Royal Air Force] Typhoons through the South China Sea last October and we will exercise that right whenever we next have the opportunity to do so, whenever we have ships or planes in the region," Fallon said.

China has always fumed when US warships sail through the South China Sea, raising tensions between the two world powers.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, through which trade worth an estimated $5tn (£3.9tn) passes each year. The international waterway is believed to hold a wealth of untapped oil and natural gas deposits. Besides China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims over the islands.

Just last month, a US-based think tank reported that China was inching a step closer to military dominance in the sea as it has continued to build missile shelters on islands there.

The new facilities are being built on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratly archipelago. It paves the way for Beijing to deploy an array of military assets in the region, said the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth
A British warship will sail through the South China Sea next year, Defence Minister Michael Fallon said Reuters/Russell Cheyne