A More Muscular Britain in the South China Sea?

The hype surrounding the UK’s future role on the issue needs to be put into proper perspective.
Late last week, a series of remarks by British officials about the country’s future actions in the South China Sea quickly reverberated across the world, prompting headlines that suggested a more muscular role by the Britain in the disputed waters. Though those remarks were significant as part of a series of actions already being taken by Britain individually as well as in concert with other like-minded countries in the South China Sea, they also need to be kept in perspective.
Britain’s rising concern about the South China Sea is nothing new. Indeed, British officials have been making clear over the past few years that even though they do want to develop their economic ties with China, they are concerned by Beijing’s unlawful actions in the South China Sea that undermine the rules-based order they are committed to.
Apart from statements, the British response has also included a series of actual and intended actions. The flying of RAF Typhoons through the South China Sea announced last year and their participation in exercises with Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia was a case in point. British officials had also said last year that aircraft carriers would be sailed to the Pacific from 2020 on, though they had provided few specifics about exactly how this would shape up.
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But last week, as we saw British officials in Australia to attend the annual two-plus-two meeting between their foreign and defense ministers dubbed AUKMIN, we saw a series of comments leading to headlines suggesting a more muscular British presence in the South China Sea. First, on Thursday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was reported as saying during a speech organized by the Australian think tank the Lowy Institute for International Policy that Britain would indeed sail its two new aircraft carriers to the South China Sea (even though Johnson had in fact said that he would send the carriers to the Straits of Malacca, a different body of water).
Then, on Friday, Defense Minister Michael Fallon told Reuters that a British warship would be sent next year to conduct freedom of navigation exercises (FONOPs) (even though the South China Sea was not specified). That, combined with Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne’s suggestion that we could see joint patrols and other engagements between Britain, Australia, and others as they identify opportunities for cooperative activities when assets are around the same area, led to another set of headlines.