The UK is preparing to send a warship to Guyana in a show of diplomatic and military support for the former British colony, the BBC has learned.
It comes after neighbouring Venezuela renewed its claim for a disputed part of Guyanese territory that is rich in oil and minerals.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed HMS Trent would take part in joint exercises after Christmas.
Guyana, a Commonwealth member, is South America’s only English-speaking nation.
HMS Trent – an offshore patrol vessel – had been deployed to the Caribbean to search for drug smugglers but was re-tasked after Venezuela’s government threatened to annex the Essequibo region of Guyana earlier this month.
This raised fears that Venezuela might invade and spark the first interstate war in South America since the Falklands Conflict in 1982.
Venezuela has long claimed ownership of Essequibo, a 61,000 square mile region which comprises about two-thirds of Guyana.
Its hills and jungles are rich in gold, diamonds and bauxite, while huge oil deposits have been found off its coast.
While Guyana’s economy is growing fast, Venezuela’s is suffering.
Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, staged a referendum on 3 December to assert popular support for his country’s claim to Essequibo.
The result was widely challenged and disputed but he nonetheless published new maps and legislation showing Essequibo as part of Venezuela, named a new governor and offered identity cards to those living in the sparsely populated region.
He has also ordered the state oil company to issue extraction licences.
Mr Maduro has subsequently met Guyana’s President, Irfaan Ali, and agreed not to use force, but he has maintained his territorial claim and both sides are still at odds over how the border dispute could be settled legally.
This week the Lloyd’s insurance market in London added Guyana to its list of riskiest shipping zones.
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson told the BBC: “HMS Trent will visit regional ally and Commonwealth partner Guyana later this month as part of a series of engagements in the region during her Atlantic Patrol Task deployment.”
HMS Trent has a crew of 65, a top speed of 24 knots and a range of 5,000 nautical miles.
It is armed with 30mm canon and a contingent of Royal Marines. It can also deploy Merlin helicopters and unmanned aircraft.
HMS Trent left its home port of Gibraltar in early December and is currently alongside in Bridgetown, Barbados for Christmas.
The warship is expected to anchor off the capital of Guyana, Georgetown, and conduct visits, joint activities and training with the country’s navy and other allies. It cannot go alongside because the port is too shallow.
The vessel is mainly used for tackling piracy and smuggling, protecting fisheries, counterterrorism, providing humanitarian aid, and search and rescue operations, but the Royal Navy says it is also designed for border patrols and defence diplomacy.
The decision to send HMS Trent to Guyana is part of a growing UK effort to show international diplomatic support for Guyana.
This week the Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said the UK would “continue to work with partners in the region to ensure the territorial integrity of Guyana is upheld and prevent escalation”.
David Rutley, the Foreign Office Minister for the Americas, visited Georgetown on 18 December, the first G7 representative to do so since Venezuela renewed its claim.
He promised Guyana the UK’s “unequivocal backing” and welcomed Venezuela’s promise to avoid using force.
Mr Rutley continued: “The border issue has been settled for over 120 years. Sovereign borders must be respected wherever they are in the world.
“The UK will continue to work with partners in the region, as well as through international bodies, to ensure the territorial integrity of Guyana is upheld.”
Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, Yvan Gil, criticised the visit, accusing the UK of destabilising the region.
In a post on X – formerly Twitter – he said: “The former invading and enslaving empire, which illegally occupied the territory of Guayana Esequiba and acted in a skilful and sneaky manner against the interests of Venezuela, insists on intervening in a territorial controversy that they themselves generated.”
Venezuela disputes the border which was established under an international agreement in 1899.
Guyana was formerly known as British Guiana before it secured its independence in 1966.