BEIJING - Britain's Defense Ministry is trying to justify its existence and grab attention with a planned mission by a British warship to the disputed South China Sea next month, a Chinese newspaper said on Wednesday.
A British warship will sail through the South China Sea to assert freedom-of-navigation rights, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said in remarks published on Tuesday during a visit to Australia.
British officials first flagged the voyage six months ago and the journey is likely to stoke tensions with China, who claim control of most of the area and have built military facilities on land features in the sea.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to the energy-rich sea through which billions of dollars in trade pass each year.
The widely read state-run tabloid the Global Times said Williamson needed to state clearly the purpose of the mission.
"If not provocation, the Royal Navy should behave modestly when passing through the South China Sea," it said in editorials published in its English and Chinese-language editions.
"By acting tough against China, Britain's Ministry of Defense is trying to validate its existence and grab attention," it said.
The paper wondered whether the Royal Navy could actually complete the trip, considering budget cuts and problems with a new aircraft carrier that has a leak.
"As the Royal Navy has been hit by news such as a leaky aircraft carrier and the UK government has a tight budget, it appears a difficult mission for the Royal Navy to come all this way to provoke China," it wrote.
China has repeatedly accused countries outside the region - generally a reference to the United States and Japan - of trying to provoke trouble in the South China Sea while China and its neighbours are trying to resolve the matter through diplomacy.
Speaking of Britain's plan, China's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday it hoped "relevant sides don't try to create trouble out of nothing".
Britain, which will be leaving the European Union next year, has looked to China as one of the countries it wants to sign a free trade deal with once it leaves the bloc. British Prime Minister Theresa May ended a largely successful trip to China earlier this month. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait)