“Global Britain” on the line in the South China Sea


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During a trip to Australia this month, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that HMS Sutherland, a British frigate currently deployed to Australia and the Western Pacific, would return from its tour via the South China Sea, “making it clear our navy has a right to do that”. Williamson is the third British minister to commit the country’s naval forces to Asian waters in as many years, following his predecessor Michael Fallon in 2016 and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in 2017.

British patrols in the South China Sea are a good idea. They would tangibly illustrate the UK’s global footprint at a time when European questions have sucked much of the oxygen from Britain’s foreign policy debate, and when doubts are growing about Britain’s ability to sustain its influence in Asia. A British contribution to wider efforts to push back against China’s growing assertiveness would be welcomed across much of the region. But to be meaningful, patrols must go beyond one-off demonstrations of the flag.

The UK would send a powerful message by following the more ambitious freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) conducted by the US. This would involve deliberately sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied features in the Spratly Islands, particularly those that have no legal entitlement to a territorial sea. Fallon and Johnson both shied away from backing such operations, preferring to frame freedom of navigation in safer, generic terms. Fallon, in fact, appeared to rule out plans for US-style operations near “disputed islands” in the South China Sea.

Such a halfway-house approach succeeds merely in irritating Beijing, while suggesting a widening gulf between Britain’s rhetoric and actions as a global security actor.

Freedom of navigation patrols, as the Lowy Institute’s interactive history of US patrols reveals, are not about power projection, presence, or deterrence. They serve a limited and specific purpose: to challenge maritime claims that are excessive under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Although the finer legal distinctions governing passage regimes under UNCLOS may be technical, they are important: to uphold the correct rules the spurious ones must be actively rebutted. Failure to do so allows China to argue that its excessive claims are accepted by major maritime nations, apart from the US.

The US has made these challenges repeatedly over the past two years. Other states, including Japan and Australia, sail through the South China Sea but not in ways that obviously challenge Chinese or other claims. Indeed, Australia’s government has proceeded warily and demured on US requests for joint patrols. But instead of leaving it to the US alone and allowing the present freedoms of the seas to erode, it is high time that a broader range of states step into the fray.

Of course, there is a risk that China would impede or confront the Royal Navy rather than the much larger US Navy, especially now that Williamson has regrettably announced HMS Sutherland’s deployment so far in advance. All the more reason, then, for the UK to seek safety in numbers.