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”.


This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines

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.

HMS Queen Elizabeth sailing her Carrier Strike Group.

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.

Chinese warship ‘XIAN Z LUYANG’ in the English Channel.

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.

HMS Queen Elizabeth with a mix of British and American jets.

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.

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AlexS
AlexS
11 days ago

Precisely.

Geoffrey Roach
Geoffrey Roach
11 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

Seconded

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
11 days ago

That is a very good article and well written.

The point about the wider dangers should UNCLOS be undermined is well made. If UNCLOS does fall just how much of the world’s oceans would China claim based on its naval power? One day the Chinese Navy will have global reach so theoretically they could lay claim to waters anywhere, especially if there is a reef or small island that they could occupy.

We should remember that China is very good at playing the long game, notwithstanding their recent apparent rush to rattle veryone’s cage!

Cheers CR

lee1
lee1
11 days ago
Reply to  ChariotRider

Both China and Russia are excellent at knowing just how far to push. They know that there are certain lines they can quite easily cross that will bring about a war of words and some useless sanctions but will not lead to war. Then a little later they do the same again. Before everyone knows it they suddenly have a lot of land gained. For instance no one was going to go to war with Russia for taking Crimea and a bit of eastern Ukraine. However if they had gone much further then it certainly could have. China knows that… Read more »

Daveyb
Daveyb
11 days ago

Completely agree. At some point China will become even more belligerent with its recent gazumping. Their 12 dash line is completely bogus, but it is the basis which their claims are based on. Unfortunately, the other Countries surrounding the South China Sea are not in a position to stop or prevent China from forcibly taking the islands and atolls, let alone removing them. What would happen if the Philippines tried to arrest the Chinese troops for trespassing? You can guarantee they won’t go quietly. Imagine how apoplectic they would be if the West decided to help the Philippines set up… Read more »

Gunbuster
Gunbuster
10 days ago
Reply to  Daveyb

The Phillipines govt appears to have seen that the writing is on the wall for them if they dont reverse there decision to get rid of US Basing arrangements

Philippines Reverses Course and Commits to U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement – USNI News

Daveyb
Daveyb
10 days ago
Reply to  Gunbuster

Funny that. I guess its better the devil you know kind of situation. At least the US doesn’t their fishing grounds.

David Steeper
David Steeper
11 days ago

Two possible scenarios. One the states bordering the S.China sea are picked off one by one by economic/diplomatic pressure. Result see Hong Kong. Two they stand together backed by the US the Aussies and to a lesser extent others. Result the CCP will face the likelyhood of a long bloody and ruinous war they ‘may’ win or ‘may’ result in there overthrow. If that is the choice I think it’s likely that Pres Xi will suffer the same fate as Kruschev.

David
David
11 days ago
Reply to  David Steeper

People need to stand up against China. They’ve gone too far.

David Steeper
David Steeper
10 days ago
Reply to  David

No argument from me.

Jacko
Jacko
11 days ago

Regarding the threat to Taiwan,have they got nukes or access to them if needed?
Or is it we might have or might not scenario.

David Steeper
David Steeper
10 days ago
Reply to  Jacko

No. Not happy to say it but if they had 1 SSBN out on patrol somewhere they’d have nothing to worry about.

AV
AV
10 days ago

Ignoring the seriousness of the chinese statement for a moment….that’s one fine photo (header)

Steve
Steve
10 days ago

Whilst we might have international law on our side, we are realistically doing it to send a message to China. The issue is it is sending all the wrong messages. The task force was meant to have 2 xt45 both of which have had to be pulled, and it’s relying on crowsnest that hasn’t been accepted into service, redundant hyphoon missiles, and needs US jets to fill the decks. All this does is demonstrate to the Chinese people how much a non threat the UK is, and that China shouldn’t take us seriously as anything other than the mouthpiece of… Read more »

Last edited 10 days ago by Steve
Gunbuster
Gunbuster
10 days ago
Reply to  Steve

T45s pulled? Both are still part of the CSG. One is in the SCS the other is still operationally capable but with a reduced level of redubndancy. if needed it could sail and fight. As its not a warfighting situation it is getting repaired in Italy before heading down the Canal and transiting the BAM to catch them up. Almost all systems have a Certificate for Cleance for Use , CCU, raised against them. Many mature systems that have been in service for decades and have now retired still had CCUs. Seawolf and 996 radar had CCus that detailed issues… Read more »

Jacko
Jacko
10 days ago
Reply to  Gunbuster

Yes ‘but’! We are British nothing works 😉 

Steve
Steve
10 days ago
Reply to  Gunbuster

I might have miss read the press releases, but the ones I read recently don’t mention either t45, as escorts, they just talk about the AB, the t23 and the Dutch frigate. The issue is if you want to set a statement, having ships break down does not set it. Equally if a war broke out, how comfortable would you be, sending the task group into battle if in the back of your mind you were worried that the air defense coverage could break down at the worst moment. On harpoon one of our own admirals stated it was completely… Read more »

Last edited 10 days ago by Steve
Daveyb
Daveyb
10 days ago
Reply to  Steve

With regards to Harpoon being ineffective against modern air defence systems, it is highly speculative. As there is no recent experience of it being fired against a “modern ship” in a conflict. In simulations, the air defence systems will/may knock it down. In the real World, Murphy gets a vote. As GB says Harpoon when fired will head for the target, depending on its programming it can fly at 5m above sea level all the way. A ship’s air defence system is not infallible, something flying that close to the sea, especially if the sea state is choppy is a… Read more »

Frank62
Frank62
9 days ago
Reply to  Daveyb

To be fair Germany’s colonial record on the far East is no better than the British Empires.

DaveyB
DaveyB
9 days ago
Reply to  Frank62

I think the only German colonial thing that is still part of China and also Worldwide is the Tsingtau beer.

Just need France, Portugal, Spain and Holland, oh and Russia of course to join CSG21. Then all the old colonial powers will there.

David G
David G
10 days ago
Reply to  Steve
Daveyb
Daveyb
10 days ago
Reply to  Gunbuster

The USMC will be embarking on our carriers for the foreseeable future. This is probably down to the loss and announced scrapping of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD) that would have been used for their marine expeditionary force. Until its replaced, the USMC are short of a flat top. It’s a win win situation for both the UK and US. The USMC maintain their qualifications of operating from a carrier, whilst the RN relearn how to operate with a large number of aircraft more quickly. From the news, it looks like a USN sailor is being charged with arson over… Read more »

Esteban
Esteban
10 days ago
Reply to  Gunbuster

You do realize that the Marines have been deploying the F-35B operationally since early 2018 on their own amphibs?

Gunbuster
Gunbuster
9 days ago
Reply to  Esteban

The USN amphibs are, in reality, flat deck helo carriers not a big deck carrier built from the outset to take F35.
The use of the ramp alone is worth the reports on what advantages and disadvantages it brings to aircraft operations.

DaveyB
DaveyB
9 days ago
Reply to  Esteban

Yes. But they generally only deploy 8 to 10 on their LHA/LHDs. They did deploy more during the Lightning Carrier trials, which in effect turned the LHA/LHD into a light carrier. Only their F18s operate from the big deck carriers, so this is something new for them and their F35Bs. The USN currently operates 7 Wasp class LHDs and 2 America class LHA/LHDs in support of the Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU). The loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard has dropped the LHA/LHD availability from 10 to 9. Also, I believe all the earlier Tarawa class that have now been retired… Read more »

Meirion x
Meirion x
8 days ago
Reply to  DaveyB

The USS Carl Vinson is the first big deck carrier to recently deploy F-35Cs in the Pacific.

Last edited 8 days ago by Meirion x
Jonathan
Jonathan
10 days ago

Unfortunately China is not a friend or even just a competitor. it wants and is planning to dominate and control as much of the globe as it can. It really is a throwback for a different age. The problem is that although at present the west can manage China at present, neoliberal dogma has left us open to a massively potent nation focused on a mercantile approach to world domination. If a small island could do it then it’s going to be that much easier for the most populous and now the second richest nation on Earth. Unless the west… Read more »

farouk
farouk
10 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan

Jonathan wrote:
Unfortunately China is not a friend or even just a competitor. it wants and is planning to dominate and control as much of the globe as it can.”

Which is why the PMs and DCs attitude to doing deals with China is surprising. It has taken near revolts from Tory MPs for him to change tack and even then he has had to be dragged to do so and yet despite the security implications of dealing with China we had this as a headline only 1 month ago:
Chinese-owned semiconductor firm buys Britain’s largest chip plant

Jonathan
Jonathan
10 days ago

There is an Interesting bbc report on fake AIS Tracks being created for NATO warships showing them incorrect entering different nations territorial waters. The implication was it’s Russian shenanigans to create tensions.

Gunbuster
Gunbuster
10 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan

All I will say is Never, Ever beleive AIS tracks for warships.
Creating AIS tracks that are not accurate are not the sole preserve of any one nation.

Farouk
Farouk
10 days ago

CNN have just revealed that India is sending a 4 ship task force on a 2 month sojourn into the South China Sea, I quote
The task force, which includes a guided-missile destroyer, guided missile frigate, anti-submarine corvette and guided-missile corvette, will participate in a series of exercises during the two-month deployment, including the Malabar 2021 naval exercises with US, Japanese and Australian forces.



David
David
10 days ago
Reply to  Farouk

Shame they couldn’t have sailed together.

Chris
Chris
10 days ago
Reply to  David

I believe the high profile nature and multinational participation of the CSG is encouraging other nations to participate. Germany and India have both announced deployments since, two very unlikely countries to do this.

It needs to continue. While the US’s actions are always assumed to be politically self-serving, The UK can inspire other more neutral countries to step up.

David Barry
David Barry
10 days ago
Reply to  Chris

Good thoughts. Thank you.

David Steeper
David Steeper
10 days ago
Reply to  Chris

Germans have asked the Chinese if it could visit Shanghai ! Whether they said please or pretty please wasn’t reported !

Gavin Gordon
Gavin Gordon
9 days ago
Reply to  David Steeper

Perhaps we could have requested HMS Tamar be based in Hong Kong. You know, just for old times sake.

David Steeper
David Steeper
9 days ago
Reply to  Gavin Gordon

 😁 

Gavin Gordon
Gavin Gordon
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris

Then there’s possibly the added encouragement of the commenced Large Scale Exercise 21, which is due to employ multiple CSG and other live aerospace, surface and subsurface assets spanning seventeen timezones on both sides of USA – in a direct capability demo to both Russia & China. 😎

Esteban
Esteban
9 days ago
Reply to  Gavin Gordon

Yes but not everyone gets to play….

Gavin Gordon
Gavin Gordon
9 days ago
Reply to  Esteban

Hm, US ‘only’, but there ought be some useful NATO/western crossover even if unofficial, I’d have thought. ‘Course, CSG includes significant US participation in an appropriate position, mayhap.

Paul.P
Paul.P
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris

Yes, there is no doubt the UK continues to exercise significant diplomatic clout on the world stage. In encouraging the likes of India and Germany UK CSG is more influential than a US CSG.

John Hampson
John Hampson
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris

Agreed. It needs a united response to support the legitimacy of the UN.

Last edited 9 days ago by John Hampson
John Hampson
John Hampson
10 days ago

I was off the Malaysian coast in 2013 and 14. When we moved location we were followed by a Chinese Coastguard corvette with a PLAN destroyer. On arrival at a new location, the Chinese would inform us that we were in Chinese waters without permission and we were to depart. On one occasion it took the appearance of Malay Hawks to persuade the Chinese to back off. During this time a Chinese amphibious task force held exercises at James Shoal and the Commander told his Marine force to be prepared to fight to defend China’s territory. ( Text of his… Read more »

Sean
Sean
9 days ago
Reply to  John Hampson

Unfortunately a major concern to the CCP is being able to feed its population in the future; though probably due to the civil unrest it would cause rather than concern for starving citizens. This is a major driver in the CCPs actions in the SCS and further abroad.
Be in no doubt, the CCP will resort to naked armed aggression to secure the resources it needs. It is only a matter of time.

Frank62
Frank62
9 days ago
Reply to  John Hampson

Entirely agree John.

AlbertStarburst
AlbertStarburst
10 days ago

Does anybody know what’s going on in the fishing waters around the Falklands? On shipping tracker-type software it looks like an awful lot of Chinese vessels. No coverage in the Media.

If so is this something we should be more aware of, and at least base more assets down there?

Mike
Mike
10 days ago

Unfortunately, might has won. Whilst the larger nations su h as the UK are largely unaffected in their freedom of navigation, the surrounding actions have lost access to their historical waters, fishing grounds and resources. Additionally, as we (global community) have not stopped China from uilding their bases, it has emboldened them to go further. Any attempt now to return the islands to the nearest nation is doomed to failure. Greed in Western business, softness in Western culture has allowed a militaristic power to be funded and emerge. I genuinely worry where this will end, we are facing a people… Read more »

Frank62
Frank62
9 days ago
Reply to  Mike

All very true. The free world must face down the CCPs cruel ambitions or face extinction.

Frank62
Frank62
9 days ago

China is an imperial construct from its early states to the Manchus. The CCP inherited that & continued its imperial ambitions as seen in its invading Tibet in the 1950s & seeking to “reclaim” Taiwan(which historically has been indepedant or under Japanese control far longer than China ever ruled it). The Uighyur genocide & this spurrious claim to nearly the entire SCS simply demonstrates the regimes true nature. It backs up violent oppression in N Korea & Burma, partly to try to avoid any crackdown on dissent at home being known. Now it is rich from providing cheap(& slave) labour… Read more »

geoff
geoff
9 days ago
Reply to  Frank62

Well said and comment in general here excellent. I come late to this article as it was not headlined on the home page but a very objective and very “Right” take on this serious danger to world peace. The nations surrounding the area-Japan,Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia represent a powerful Bloc and counter to the Chinese. Whilst Western opposition is largely in the academic world, the above countries face very real and immediate threats from China’s stance. The other observation is that countries such as China,Russia and Belarus utilize Orwellian speech and thought as an alternative and… Read more »

Paul.P
Paul.P
9 days ago

A complementary perspective.
From Israel Europe looks like a dying paradise.
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/from-israel-europe-looks-like-a-dying-paradise-vmgk7vsdn
We also need to face up to the fact of US loss of self confidence.
While we can do what we can to constrain Chinese expansionism it is essential that Europe and the US remembers why Western culture was so successful, and engineers a westernization of Chinese culture.

Ian Parker
Ian Parker
6 days ago

Ullo ukdi, I’ve often wondered, ifn the US Pilots, along with their maintenance crews, were enjoying the change in their Accommodation’s, aboard R08, & Our Bland UK Food Menu’s, Bye 4 Now, Ian.

David Steeper
David Steeper
5 days ago
Reply to  Ian Parker

They can always drown their sorrows if they are !