The new Chinese ambassador to London likes to tell British ministers what to think.
In an official statement on Tuesday, his spokesperson declared that that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace “disregards the … objective facts of the South China Sea… and thus, undermines regional peace and stability”.
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Bill Hayton is the author of ‘The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia’ and ‘The invention of China’. His most recent paper with the Council on Geostrategy is titled ‘The Carrier Strike Group in the South China Sea’.
Mr Wallace’s comments, in which he talked about the importance of upholding international law, came during an official visit to Vietnam, a country that has strong concerns about “regional peace and stability”. But Vietnam is not concerned about threats from Britain. Instead, it is worried about the threats from its neighbour, China.
The speech in Hanoi was timed to coincide with the arrival of a British-led ‘Carrier Strike Group’ which is currently making its way through the South China Sea. HMS Queen Elizabeth and its accompanying ships are heading to South Korea and Japan to take part in military exercises. In the past few days, several vessels have engaged in friendly manoeuvres with counterparts from Malaysia and Singapore and one has made a port visit to Brunei. All these activities were at the invitation of the countries concerned and none seem to regard them as a threat to regional peace.
There should be nothing remarkable about warships sailing through seas.
In 2017 and 2019 China sent warships up the English Channel, right through British territorial waters. Back then, the British ambassador to Beijing felt no need to criticise “gunboat diplomacy” as the Chinese spokesperson did on Tuesday. The right of all ships, including warships, to sail through the sea is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China and the UK have both ratified.
The fate of this crucial international treaty is what concerns Britain, Southeast Asia’s governments, and others who fear the unravelling of the ‘rules-based order’. For many years, China has been breaking the rules that it signed up to when it ratified UNCLOS. Rather than respecting the rights guaranteed by the Convention, it has been using its growing naval might to intimidate its neighbours. The casualties range from fishermen unable to use their traditional fishing grounds to international energy companies such as BP and Shell forced to abandon their oil and gas fields off Vietnam and the Philippines.
In desperation, the Philippines turned to international law and in 2016 an independent tribunal ruled against China. China’s response has been to denounce the ruling and refuse to comply. In Tuesday’s statement, the Chinese embassy called it “illegal, null and void”. The spokesperson then veered into conspiracy theories with the claim that “Facts show that the arbitration is a political farce orchestrated and manipulated by the US.”
This, unfortunately, has become a standard trope of Chinese commentary on the South China Sea. Rather than accepting that smaller countries enjoy rights under international law, Beijing denounces them as American stooges. It is immensely counter-productive. Little wonder that anti-China sentiment is rising in Southeast Asia.
25 years ago this month, Southeast Asia’s foreign ministers called for a regional ‘Code of Conduct’ to try to put limits on China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. China has been stonewalling the idea ever since. The embassy’s claim that “China always advocates friendly negotiations and consultations on issues in relation to the South China Sea” will raise hollow laughs in regional capitals.
This is a key reason why the UK has sent the CSG through the South China Sea: to show solidarity with smaller states in the region struggling to assert their rights against China’s might. It is a case of enlightened self-interest. All countries with coastlines and seaborne trade depend upon UNCLOS.
If it collapses in Asia, it is weakened everywhere. By asserting the importance of the treaty and the rights of smaller states, the UK remains another step away from an anarchic world in which big countries simply order smaller ones around.
It is possible that the CSG’s mission may include a British warship sailing through the Paracel Islands in the northern part of the South China Sea. This should be no more controversial than a Chinese warship sailing through the Dover Strait. Instead, we are likely to hear claims that the UK has ‘violated China’s sovereignty’. But China’s declaration that this area is its ‘internal waters’ is another violation of the rules of UNCLOS. The UK has right on its side.
The embassy and China’s state media have already resorted to the standard tropes assigned to British relations with Asia with references to ‘gunboat diplomacy’, ‘colonial days’ and ‘opium wars’. They are both lazy and inaccurate. The UK gave up its colonies in what are now Malaysia and Singapore sixty years ago. Brunei became fully independent in 1984. Britain continues to have defence relations with all three countries at their request, not as part of a colonial relationship.
All those countries – and many others besides – welcome the visit of the CSG because of their own concerns about security in the region. In their perception, the primary risks to peace are the attitudes and behaviour of the People’s Republic of China. In an uncertain environment, these countries are reaching out to countries that share the same concerns, such as the UK, for mutual support.
They are worried about a new imperial power – and it is not Britain.