Britain will sail a warship through disputed international waters in the South China Sea next month, in an apparent challenge to Beijing's claim on the territory, the defence secretary announced on Tuesday (13 February).

The move is likely to anger the Chinese who have built military installations on artificial islands in the South China Sea and claim much of the area as its own territorial waters.

The warship will sail through the region after visiting Australia, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told The Australian newspaper.

"She'll be sailing through the South China Sea [on the way home] and making it clear our navy has a right to do that," he said.

Williamson did not say whether HMS Sutherland would come within 12 nautical miles of a disputed territory claimed by the Chinese, as a US warship did last month. But he stressed that it was important that along with the US, Britain and Australia also "assert our values" in the South China Sea.

"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."

Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said that he was aware of Williamson's comments.

"All countries in accordance with international law enjoy freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. There is no disagreement on this," he said.

"The situation on the South China Sea is also improving with each day. We hope all relevant sides, especially those outside the region can respect the efforts made by regional countries," Geng added. "Like I said last week, currently the South China Sea is calm and tranquil and we hope relevant sides don't try to create trouble out of nothing."

China reacted angrily to the US' freedom of navigation mission last month, warning that such an operation could threaten peace and stability in the region.

"China is strongly dissatisfied with the [US action] and will take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty," foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at the time.

Several other countries, including Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, also lay claim to the South China Sea and the billions of dollars it offers in oil reserves and trade opportunities.