Britain is to base two Royal Navy ships permanently in the Far East to help form a bulwark against Chinese claims over Asian waters.
The announcement was made on Tuesday by the Defence Minister Ben Wallace during a visit to the Japanese capital, Tokyo.
It comes ahead of a planned visit to Japan in September by a Royal Naval strike group led by the new £3 billion flagship aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
"Following on from the strike group’s inaugural deployment, the United Kingdom will permanently assign two ships in the region from later this year," said Mr Wallace, speaking alongside his Japanese counterpart, Nobuo Kishi.
The announcement is part of a strengthening of security ties with Tokyo, which has expressed alarm in recent months over China’s territorial ambitions in the region, including Taiwan.
The Queen Elizabeth is being escorted by two destroyers, two frigates, two support vessels and ships from the United States and the Netherlands.
Its route to Japan goes through the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by China and South East Asian countries, with stops in India, Singapore and South Korea (see map below).
Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier
Britain sees the naval deployment as an assertion of the right of international passage through waters that Beijing regards as part of its backyard, in particular the South China Sea. However, naval chiefs have been wary of being overly-provocative.
In April, The Telegraph disclosed that HMS Queen Elizabeth would avoid a particularly sensitive route through Taiwan Strait, a 100-mile stretch of water separating the island of Taiwan from mainland China. China does not respect Taiwan’s claims to independence, and Beijing has hinted in recent years that it has not ruled out re-taking the island by force. Senior Tory MPs, who want Downing Street to take a tougher line with China, said the naval chiefs had been too timid in avoiding the Taiwan Strait.
After their arrival in Japan, the Queen Elizabeth and its escort ships are expected to split up for separate port calls to US and Japanese naval bases along the Japanese archipelago. A close Washington ally, Japan hosts the biggest concentration of American military forces outside the US, including ships, aircraft and thousands of US Marines.
Secretary of State Wallace, left, with Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga
Credit: Franck Robichon/Pool Photo via AP
Dr Sidharth Kaushal, a Research Fellow on Sea Power at the Royal United Services Institute, told The Telegraph that the permanent deployment of the two Royal Navy ships was in line with the wider aims of Spring’s defence review, which identified China and Russia as key global rivals.
"It’s not really a surprise, if one looks at the general tilt to the Indo-Pacific," he said. "The relationship between the UK and China has clearly become more competitive, but Britain is still inclined to hedge its bets on these things, stopping shy of directly confronting China," he said. "The Chinese won’t be delighted, but they won’t view it as massively inimical to their interests either."
The two ships to be permanently stationed in the Far East will be HMS Spey and HMS Tamar, both 90-metre offshore patrol vessels normally used for maritime policing duties such as anti-piracy and counter-terrorism. Dr Kaushal described them as smaller-scale patrol vessels, and said their presence would be unlikely to unnerve Beijing too much.