Charting Britain’s Moves in the South China Sea
A British naval presence in the South China Sea strengthens global security and Britain’s global role. But it must be matched with a more systematic approach to the region, and to China’s defiance of legal norms.
Last summer, the HMS Albion, an amphibious assault ship colloquially described as one of the Royal Navy’s ‘Swiss Army knives’, undertook what is widely believed to have been a freedom of navigation manoeuvre near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. In doing so, the British government has shown that it is committed to upholding the rules-based order and asserting its market access rights in Southeast Asia. This was commendable for two different reasons: it projects a Britain that is willing to take the diplomatic and economic risk in the name of upholding maritime rights that benefit many smaller and medium-sized states in the region; and it shows that despite the Brexit process and contrary to the established narrative in the media, British foreign policy elites still view themselves as having something to contribute to the global system.
Yet however commendable HMS Albion’s transit in the South China Sea may be, it raises the question of what is next? How does ‘Global Britain’ – an avowed objective of the government – follow up on this naval transit in a meaningful and sustainable manner? Also, how does it avoid coming into conflict with China, which has begun to push back on US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in a way that raises concerns about a possible miscalculation or naval incident at sea? In short, how does the UK avoid a situation in which an incident causes the loss of life of even just a single British sailor, leading to broader political questions about Britain’s role in ‘meddling’ in the affairs of ‘far-off peoples’, about whom allegedly it knows little?
A recent Henry Jackson Society report sought to answer these questions with a number of policy recommendations, which might alleviate or soften the risks, while searching for ways to adequately resource and sustain operations far from British shores. The report proposed, for example, that the Royal Naval vessels might carry out two different types of freedom of navigation manoeuvres to defend British access to the seas: jurisdictional; and territorial. In the first instance, the Royal Navy might challenge the excessive jurisdictional powers that China has claimed for itself, such as Beijing’s demands for advance warning of ships transiting its contiguous waters. In this instance, Royal Navy vessels need only carry out an innocent passage through the waters but, notably, without requesting permission or giving advanced notification, thereby indirectly refuting jurisdictional powers China is seeking to obtain.
In the second instance, Royal Navy vessels might challenge China’s excessive territorial claims – particularly those straight baselines drawn between islands – by sailing through them in a manner not befitting innocent passage. This might involve carrying out a brief man-overboard drill or the operation of a helicopter.
There is a question, naturally, of whether the Royal Navy should take part in such operations inside the 12 nautical mile line of certain Chinese features as the US Navy has begun to do. While there are risks in doing so, there are also risks in not doing so, particularly those manmade features or low-tide elevations, where China’s excessive claims are ridiculous. However, should the Royal Navy take part in such jurisdictional or territorial challenges, it must do so in a manner that does not increase instability in the region or risk a military response.
One way of decreasing risk is by opening up the programme to collective action of a number of like-minded states, but in a way that does not increase the number of vessels in-area. There is, for example, the ‘ship-rider’ programme, originally proposed by former US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift. He found that many states – both in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe – were torn between their national interests in upholding their maritime rights and their national interests in receiving Chinese investment and trade. China’s leadership has of course realised this and has become increasingly willing to ‘punish’ states in highly symbolic ways that impact domestic foreign policy debates in offending states. The HMS Albion’s transit, for example, was greeted with a threat in the China Daily – a state-run newspaper – that future transits could ‘put a spanner in the works’ of a post-Brexit free trade agreement.
The ship-rider idea aims to soften potential Chinese punishment by using collective action. So, for example, the next Royal Naval vessel to carry out a freedom of navigation manoeuvre might have onboard uniformed officers from, say, NATO, India, certain EU states which are not members of the Alliance or, perhaps, even regional states like Vietnam or the Philippines. Such a manoeuvre compounds and entangles China’s punishment strategy and also raises the prospect – however dim – of Beijing beginning to realise that increasing multilateralism around the South China Sea issue will necessitate compromise.
Another way of multilateralising the freedom of navigation manoeuvers in a manner that does not increase the risk of miscalculation is the ‘multiple hulls’ programme, whereby multiple ships transit the South China Sea together, with only one carrying out a freedom of navigation manoeuver while the others wait just outside the sector. So for example, a number of European powers might sail through the South China Sea on their way to take part in port visits, with only one taking part in the manoeuvre.
Such a concept is already a reality, albeit a very incipient one, through the various groupings which are being formed in the region: the US-Japan-Australia trilateral and the US-Japan-India-Australia Quad are both fairly new quasi-alliance groupings that have sprung up in the wake of China’s expansion over the South China Sea. A Global Britain that really wished to sustain its presence and its interests in the region could join such groupings and take part in interoperability-building joint exercises, like Cope North Guam or Pacific Bond. The former is an annual air warfare exercise in which British Typhoons might show their capabilities, while the latter is an annual trilateral maritime warfare exercise, to which Britain could display its anti-submarine-warfare-heavy Type-23 frigate.
A Global Britain that really does stand for the rules-based international system and wishes to protect its market access in Southeast Asia and the wider Pacific will need to craft a number of overlapping strategies for dealing with a variety of challenges. It will have to contend with the logistics and geographical challenges that the vast distances present, although Britain is lucky that it has access to many regional strategic hubs, including those in Singapore, Diego Garcia and Brunei. While geography presents many challenges, it also imposes a useful constraint: Britain has to rely on regional partners and allies for its forward-basing and must should negotiate new basing agreements with friendly regional powers. France’s recent basing agreement with India might serve as a template.
Britain will also have to craft an all-of-government China policy to deal with the political and economic challenges of an assertive rising state. It must be remembered that China needs access to Britain’s financial markets, its technologies, and its diplomatic and media soft power networks, just as Britain courts Chinese investment. But only when China realises Britain’s resolve would the government in London begin to have a real – if still marginal – impact on Chinese policy.
John Hemmings is Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society and an Adjunct Fellow at CSIS.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.
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