Britain is a major naval player no longer. It can only offer a support presence for other western powers in the Indo-Pacific
Chinese has long historical memories of British men-of-war in the South China Seas, dating back to the humiliations of the Opium Wars. But while Beijing warns London not to get engaged in the area’s complex maritime disputes, it may be getting worked up over nothing: the United Kingdom’s defense budget for 2019 appears insufficient to ensure a continuous presence by the Royal Navy in global commons.
On Monday, British finance minister Philip Hammond pledged an extra US$1.3 billion for the country’s new nuclear submarine program and the modernization of its anti-submarine warfare and offensive cyber capabilities.
However, many British leaders believe this is not nearly enough for Britannia to rule the waves. According to a recent report by the House of Commons Defense Committee, the UK needs a $25.5 billion increase in military funding to address present and future challenges. This means it is doubtful that Britain’s bellicose words about its naval deployment in the South China Sea will be matched with deeds.
More UK warships in the South China Sea
Admiral Philip Jones, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, told the Financial Times last week that the British government would send more warships through the region to promote freedom of navigation. Britain is too puny to challenge China in East Asia, but the Royal Navy could give additional punch to a potential anti-China combination of Indo-Pacific forces led by the United States.
Jones’ remarks provoked a harsh response from Beijing. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on October 24 that the recent “trespassing” of a British warship into China’s territorial waters off the Xisha Islands, otherwise known as the Paracel Islands, had already damaged relations between the two countries.
The Paracels, as well as the Spratly Islands, are claimed by both China and a number of Southeast Asian nations. The Chinese want Britain to stop provocative moves in the area.
On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last September Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi bluntly told his British counterpart Jeremy Hunt that UK naval operations could undermine mutual trust. The Chinese envoy urged London to respect China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity and refrain from taking sides in controversies regarding the South China Sea.
UK leaders might be tempted to think that China, faced with a growing trade war with the US, will limit its reaction to the Royal Navy’s presence in East Asia to symbolic rebukes, and that bilateral relations between the two countries will not be compromised. Britain wants stronger commercial ties with Beijing to mitigate the impact of its exit from the European Union.