UK naval moves in South China Sea could be a bid for Britain to be seen as ‘significant global actor’

By James Moules


THE PASSAGE of UK warships through the South China Sea is likely an attempt by Britain to renew its image as a global power, experts have told Redaction Report.

At the end of July 2021, the UK’s Carrier Strike Group – which includes the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth – sailed through the South China Sea.

This sea – which borders a number of east and south east Asian nations including China, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines – is a hotly contested maritime region. Several countries stake overlapping territorial claims across the waters.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) asserts that a vast majority of the sea is its maritime territory and has undertaken island building in an attempt to strengthen its hand in the region.

However, a 2016 international court ruling contradicted China’s territorial claims.

The PRC claimed that the UK’s move is an attempt to assert a military presence in the South China Sea.

An editorial in the pro-Chinese Communist Party state media publication Global Times on July 29, 2021 read: “The very idea of a British presence in the South China Sea is dangerous. We respect the right of passage in the South China Sea granted by international law to military forces of all countries, including the UK.

“However, if London tries to establish a military presence in the region with geopolitical significance, it will only disrupt the status quo in the region. And the UK simply does not have the ability to reshape the pattern in the South China Sea. To be precise, if the UK wants to play the role of bullying China in the region, it is demeaning itself. And if there is any real action against China, it is looking for a defeat.”

Oliver Turner, a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, told Redaction Report that the Chinese would inevitably view the voyage as provocative – although the risk of military escalation remains low at the present moment.

“Certainly from China’s point of view it is deemed to be a provocation,” he said. “These are considered to be China’s territorial waters, and sailing close to what is seen to be Chinese territory is considered unnecessarily aggressive.”

However, he added that Britain’s navigation through the South China Sea is likely an attempt to assert the UK as a strong power on the global stage – especially in the wake of its departure from the European Union.

“The UK wants to demonstrate to the US, Australia, Japan and others that it remains a significant global actor and that it should remain in the highest circles of international politics. The UK has reduced its military-security capabilities over the past decade in particular and its no secret that this has concerned Washington,” he said.

“Brexit has raised further questions about the UK’s ability to project long-term influence, with all of its closest partners expressing a desire before 2016 to see the UK remain in the EU, partly for the sake of its international engagement.

“So it seems that the UK has performed a cost-benefit of analysis of this journey through the South China Sea and decided that the security risks are low in that China is unlikely to respond with force, but the likely payoff is that partners will be reassured that the UK is serious about remaining an active participant in supporting the so-called ‘international rules based system’, as they see it.”

Jonathan Sullivan, Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the  University of Nottingham, also pointed that the UK’s voyage could be intended to send a message to China that it intends to maintain the “international order”.

He said: “The rhetorical position in China is that it is an intolerable provocation. But it is also a useful information al input, to see which nations are willing to do what.

“In itself a FONOP (Freedom of Navigation Operation) is not something that would lead to confrontation or escalation – bar an accidental collision or some miscalculation.”

Sino-British relations are widely perceived as having soured over the past year.

In 2020, Britain banned Huawei equipment from its 5G network – and as the plans for the ban were floated, the Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming threatened: “if you treat China as a hostile country, you would have to bear the consequences.”

More recently, the UK parliament has declared that China’s repression of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang constitutes genocide and voted for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Dr Sullivan said that Carrier Strike Group’s navigation through the South China Sea “will contribute to the negative momentum in foreign relations.”

He said: “The deterioration of US-China relations is serious, and the signs of a bifurcation in international relations are there. The UK has equivocated more than most, but the Integrated Review pivot to Indo-Pacific is a sign that it is coming off the fence.

“This sail through, along with all the other irritations in the bilateral with China, are a sign of deteriorating UK-China relations.”

As of late, China has been working to ramp up its military presence and capabilities – including its aircraft carrier programme. The PRC currently has two commissioned aircraft carriers and has plans underway to build more.

Dr Sullivan said: “As the military balance shifts further in China’s favour it is possible that “assertiveness” becomes belligerence, but equally I would imagine that an even more favourable balance of power would bring other Asian countries into line.

“The wild card here is what outsiders decide to do to inject themselves.

“The US is an outsider that is paradoxically an Asian power, but the Europeans have no business there in Chinese eyes.

“What exactly the UK hopes to achieve I’m unsure, other than showing it’s a global power that can run with the big boys. We still await the UK’s China strategy, perhaps we’ll find out more then.”


Featured Image: Dave Jenkins – InfoGibraltar @Flickr

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