UK between a rock and a hard place in South China Sea
The British warship HMS Sutherland docked in Australia on the weekend. The Royal Navy’s Type 23 anti-submarine frigate will conduct exercises and patrol operations with the naval forces of allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. More important, it will sail into the South China Sea while returning home from Down Under next month. Needless to say, leaders in Beijing are already sharpening their knives.
HMS Sutherland’s deployment in the Pacific Rim is part of Britain’s effort to bolster its global role and counter the narrative that its power is declining. It is also a show of support for Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the area by the US Navy against China’s growing military clout, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said while on a visit to Australia last week.
The British government is struggling to keep its aircraft carrier program on budget. Nonetheless, it is not short of reasons for seeking an expansion of the Royal Navy’s presence from the Arabian Sea to the Western Pacific.
First, the United Kingdom is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Second, 18 members of the Commonwealth, a voluntary association bringing together London and a number of its former colonies, are Indo-Pacific nations. Third, it is a partner in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing framework along with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And fourth, it teams up with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia under the Five Power Defense Arrangements.
Britain believes its FONOPs in the South China Sea will help prop up the international rules-based order. Just like their US counterparts, British leaders emphasize that naval operations in the region are aimed at protecting one of the world’s busiest trade routes, through which trillions of dollars’ worth of goods are shipped each year.
But this interpretation of FONOPs is a bit of a stretch. China also has an interest in keeping seaways open. Indeed, 39% of all Chinese trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016, according to the ChinaPower Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In the event this passageway fell under the control of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Beijing could deny access to commercial ships only for a limited time during a crisis, unless it wants to damage its own economy.
Protecting alliances and partnerships
Naval maneuvers by the Royal Navy in the South China Sea evidently have to do with security concerns. Britain has made no secret of its opposition to China’s development of military outposts on reefs and other features that it has converted into artificial islands.
In a speech given at the Royal United Services Institute last month, General Nicholas Carter, chief of the General Staff of the UK’s armed forces, said increasing competition in the South China Sea proved that the United States was right to view great-power competition, and not terrorism, as the primary focus of its national security.
Beijing says it has “historical rights” in the South China Sea, but they are disputed by some Southeast Asian neighbors, which are supported by Washington in their territorial claims. Among these, Malaysia and Brunei are Commonwealth nations, for instance. If the South China Sea becomes a Chinese lake, with Beijing exerting greater influence on concerned countries, London’s network of alliances and partnerships in the area risks being disrupted or severely undermined.
This is not a secondary issue for Britain, which is expected to complete its exit from the European Union in March 2019, and is trying to rebalance its international focus away from the EU and on dynamic Commonwealth partners in the Indo-Pacific arena, besides the United States.
‘Global Britain,’ China and the US
But “Global Britain,” the British government’s plan to mitigate the negative effects of the country’s withdrawal from the European bloc, also envisages stricter relations with China, London’s major trading partner in Asia.
Sending naval vessels to the South China Sea, the UK will find itself in the same predicament as China’s neighbors, which on the one hand must take steps to protect their sovereignty in the face of Chinese military pressure, and on the other must continue to engage with Beijing, their major commercial partner.
If London wants to preserve both a strategic alliance with the US in the Pacific and a trade partnership with China, it will have to take a page out of Singapore’s playbook on how to cope with Washington and Beijing alike, and get away with it.
Lee Kuan Yew, the late founding father and longtime leader of the tiny Southeast Asian nation, would likely advise Her Majesty’s Government not to instruct HMS Sutherland to cruise within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island in the South China Sea.