The UK should pursue a “Pacific dimension” for the Royal Navy with a permanent facility in the Indo-Pacific region in order to “deter foreign powers from undertaking aggression” in the South China Sea, according to a new report.

“Nearly 12% of UK seaborne trade – £97 billion in imports and exports – passes through the South China sea each year”

The South China Sea: Why it Matters to Global Britain

The report, published by The Henry Jackson Society and entitled ‘The South China Sea: Why It Matters to Global Britain‘, claims China’s “unlawful and excessive claims” in the area pose a significant “threat to British interests”. The UK must continue to “reject Chinese claims over international waters”.

It recommends establishing a policy of Royal Navy vessels cruising through to the sea to deter China, in addition to sending HMS Queen Elizabeth to the area when fully operational in 2020-21.

The UK has “extensive commercial interests” in the South China Sea as the primary “trade corridor” connecting Europe and East Asia. An estimated $3.37 trillion worth of global shipping passed through the sea in 2016 alone.

The report argues there are two ways the Royal Navy should challenge China’s “bizarre claims to the entire sea”:

  1. Freedom of Navigation Movements (FONMOVS): these would involve a Royal Navy vessel cruising into waters claimed by China (or other states) without giving advance notice, and passing directly as if undertaking “innocent passage”
  2. Freedom of Navigation Exercises (FONEXS): these would involve a Royal Navy vessel cruising into waters claimed by China (or other states) in a way not befitting of “innocent passage” (and without giving advance notice), such as launching a aircraft and/or conducting drills

“As a custodian of the rules-based order, the UK has a role to play in challenging attempts to undermine the rules on which the world depends”

It also recommends the UK embed itself in existing regional security architecture, such as the US–Japan–Australia Trilateral.

The report points out the economic benefits of a greater presence, arguing nations in the area will be more likely to negotiate “lucrative trading partnerships with the UK” if the Royal Navy backs their security. There is some suggestion that Australia’s decision to select the Type 26 frigate for their future naval requirements is connected to Britain’s renewed strategic focus in the Indo-Pacific.

Over the course of 2018, the Royal Navy became increasingly active in the area, with HMS Sutherland, Argyll, and Albion all conducting exercises. This came to public attention when China sent a frigate and jets to “harass” Albion in August 2018. Whilst the Ministry of Defence didn’t formally publish full details, it is understood Albion sailed through the Chinese occupied Parcel Islands. The Royal Navy said it was conducting a freedom of navigation exercise “in full compliance with international law”.


The report was written by Dr John Hemmings, Director of the Asia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society, and James Rogers, Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society. 

A further summary of the report will be published by the UK Defence Journal in due course. 

43 COMMENTS

  1. Evening all

    Just a brief comment from me;
    HMG should now be looking, especially with the BREXIT date looming ever closer, to begin to re-establish relationships with allies and Commonwealth nations.
    The provision of fixed shared locations overseas increases HMG’s presence and ability to influence at short notice, it enables the sharing of doctrine, training and tactics at a strategic and tactical level. It allows links lost to be reconnected, it tells our friends we care, we are willing to engage and we are willing, more importantly, to deploy men/women, money and materials to reinforce that message.
    The world is getting smaller everyday, sometimes a new piece of military hardware shows the world we are still in the game; but carriers cannot be in all places all of the time.
    We are the only nation, apart from the USA that can deploy worldwide at a moments notice and sustain that operation indefinitely, this is not because of the number of aircraft/ships/soldiers we have but because of the supporting infrastructure we have in place to do it. If we were to create, in friendly far flung countries static infrastructure (bases, airfields and ports) which we shared with the host nation imagine how much we could do with the little equipment and manpower we actually have.
    The world is changing around us, there are those that want to step back from the world and ignore the challenges that we face.
    Sometimes it takes a small country, like ours, to stand up and be counted.
    We are not a military superpower and we should never aspire to be one, we should be able though to deploy our military when our soft power (ranked 1st in the world) needs a bit of extra persuasion to get it over the line.

    • Agree with the sentiment but not within the current MOD budget. We need greater mass in the RN to achieve these goals so without a bigger budget other assets would be scrapped. I just cannot see us increasing spending any time soon, just look at what is going on in Westminster at the moment.

      • Agree entirely Rob,

        When the RN had 50+ escorts at the end of the Cold War, it might, if desired, have been feasible to send a couple of warships. With just 19 today, of which too many are laid up due to shortage of crews and spares and money for operations, it’s really a non-starter.

        Any warship that plays about in the SCS needs an air defence destroyer/frigate alongside, as aggressive warnings from Chinese fighters could, with any little slip or miscalculation or mistake on either side, turn into a hot exchange. We can only get 3 or at most 4 T45s to sea at any one time and defence of the carrier comes first, so there are none to spare for foreign adventures.

        We could and should supply one warship on occasional roulement as part of an allied force with USN, Japan, Australia and with USN air cover. But I get from the write-up a whiff of a ‘Britannia rules the waves/We are great again and this is the new Global Britain’, which is all frankly a load of jingoistic pap, our Navy has never been smaller or so poorly funded or less able to carry out warfighting in the north-east Atlantic, before even thinking of playing Hornblower in the Far East.

        Increase defence spending to 3% of GNP and get the Trident programme and the other accounting tricks out of the defence budget and maybe we could be a bit more ambitious.

  2. China is currently experiencing some significant fiscal pressure, and it will be interesting to see if this causes any reduction in defence spending? A recent UK news report said demonstrations have been widespread across China due to an economic downturn. If such a move happens, it might change UK Far East short term defence planning?

    • if anything that economic downturn will spur greater spending on defence from china, they sleepwalked into a dictatorship when they voted to allow Xi to have an indefinite length of office, and he will now fight to keep it.

  3. What do you mean small country? If you mean geographical size then actually as far as islands go we are actually a rather big one , if you mean population then 60 odd million people is actually quite large if you mean on GDP then I’m afraid again the answer is we are the worlds 5th or 6th biggest economy and wealthiest if you mean military spending then again we are 5th-6th biggest spenders on arms and one of only 8 nations with nuclear weapons and one of only 7 that could fry large parts of the earth so again I ask what do you mean by small? You talk like we are some no name nobody’s with no influence in the world which is just factually incorrect. The entire planet pretty much runs on a system we created don’t take my word for it plenty in the history books to confirm that.

    • Bravo, I’m sick of idiots thinking just because the UK is an island nation and thus they think the UK is tiny! And the island of Britain isn’t that small actually and is in the top 10 biggest islands on earth 8th if I remember corectly. And that great island invented so many things everyone take for granted around the globe, without Britain the world would be very very different and allot worse in my opinion, just without British medical breakthroughs like the vaccine or penicillin or the injection needle would make it far worse.

      Britain is still a powerful nation and only a handful of nations on earth can build nuclear warheads and design and build then run expensive aircraft carriers and nuclear atack/armed submarines. We are definitely in the Elite of the world, but we should have a bigger elite military and especially Navy, we 100% need another batch of 5 type 31s minimum for the RN so it can be active around the globe and fulfill standing commitments. .

      • Cock On, lol. As reports say, Britain Is the Second most powerful Country In the World when all other factors are taken into account. The Report that was posted here stated that It’s not just about our Military Capability but Influences such as David Beckham’s latest Hair style, Will and Kate’s latest child’s name and Megan’s £20.000 Dress.
        We have a huge Influence Globally.

    • Great post Chicken.

      One for the extreme self hating lefties to absorb and stew on.

      I know Lee knows all of that though, so singling him out for the “small” comment is unfounded.

      As for ships regularly in the South China Sea, well we will need a bigger navy first.

      We can use Diego Garcia, and we also have the facility in Singapore. Would we really need another site there?

      • I took Lee saying small to mean by area in which case we are. We’re 76th by area in the world which is relatively small. But yes we have always punched above our weight as stats you’ve stated @pollo and history show.

        As for extreme left hating country I’d suggest anyone on the extremes of politics can be pretty self-hating of their country. Extreme right with nazi ideals etc seems fairly self hating of UK considering our history.

        • Yep, true Robert1.

          Slight difference defence wise. Far right usually want a bigger military, bigger influence, strong on law, strong on crime, etc, where’s the far left are perceived as being weak on all those and utterly PC riddled, which pisses off all those in the middle!

          • “Small” was a sarcastic put down used by Mr Putin a while back, I’ve often requoted it here.

    • “You talk like we are some no name nobody’s with no influence in the world which is just factually incorrect.”

      Looking at what they said:

      “We are the only nation, apart from the USA that can deploy worldwide at a moments notice and sustain that operation indefinitely, this is not because of the number of aircraft/ships/soldiers we have but because of the supporting infrastructure we have in place to do it. If we were to create, in friendly far flung countries static infrastructure (bases, airfields and ports) which we shared with the host nation imagine how much we could do with the little equipment and manpower we actually have.”

      Me, that quote makes me feel proud just as the stuff you wrote does.

      I think they meant small in size, and the quote above shows they think we are large in many ways. Hardly talking our country down.

    • If everybody showed a bit of pride and a bit of can do attitude this ‘small country’ would be such a great place to live.

      Sadly it seems to be liberal whiny people complaining that benefits aren’t high enough,council services aren’t good enough or my personal favourite, the government should do more! Do more to support your drug abuse, do more to pay for you sat on your arse all day when others work hard, do more to support your 14 kids from 10 different fathers, to support your one disabled child so you cant work, when thousands of other parents with disabled children do. Etc Etc .

      Come on people, get off your fat arses, show some pride in yourself and your community, do a days work and be proud to be British.

      Rant over, await abuse.

    • I take the use of terms such as ‘punching above our weight’ to be nothing more than an excuse for those in power for the significant underspend on defence.

    • No backlash from me, “small” maybe a misjudged but aprovocative word. We hear everyday our our influence is diminished and how we are now just a mid-sized European nation, needing the EU just to survive day to day.
      I choose to look forward and not back, build on what we have achieved and never sit on our laurels, especially now when those that we thought were friends are actively seeking to harm us.
      You have listed what we have done, imagine what we can do – let’s hope we have got the moral fortitude and strength to do it

  4. I’m all for the idea, but our Navy is stretched as it is after decades of cutbacks, we need to increase spending on defence and increase the size of the Royal Navy. We need more submarines, either more Astute class or 5 diesel electric, 2 more Type 45, 2 more Type 26 and 2 more River class O.P.V.s.

    • Unfortunately, economically speaking the RN’s only real options for expansion are speeding up the T26 build and increasing the T31 programme, as they’re currently in build and have no follow-up programmes needing the yard space. Our only submarine yard is fully booked until Dreadnought wraps up, and more OPVs would be a misallocation of resources.

      In a decade or so, additional batches of T26s and larger (8-12) order of the T45 and Astute replacement would be options for a government serious about defence. In the meantime though, the defence budget is best spent investing in manpower and crew retention, building a strong base for future expansion

  5. Yes, a base in the Pacific region is needed to forward deploy one frigate, with facilities for more ships , aircraft , and troops as needed. I would suggest Brunei, Singapore, or perhaps one of the smaller states such as Papua New Guinea or Solomon Is. Darwin in Australia would be fine but the Aussies might be sensitive to that.

    • I think that something in Sarawak (Borneo) with the Malaysians would be a good location, Diego Garcia is too far away, most of the regional navies are not blue water, the Indonesians for example are only looking at protecting their own islands and not projecting power beyond their borders.

      in terms of interoperability I think the Royal Malaysian Navy would be a good local partner – would also help smooth out some local tensions between them and Singapore.

      the cultural and historic links are there, they use some of our kit and their command and training structure is based on ours.

      somewhere like Miri which has deep water anchorage and good repair facilities and is within. a few km of Brunei which still has (please correct if I am wrong) and old airforce runway capable of taking fast jets – someone just needs to placate the Sultan after the corvette/BAE fallout

  6. Seeing as we don’t have enough ships for our current commitments, this seems over ambitious. Give the RN another dozen escorts & maybe it might stand some scrutiny. Apart from for working up & familiarising exercises, it seems strange to venture our carriers on the other side of the world unless events there make it a necessity. Better to deploy much more expendable assets & leave facing down China to the US & regional allies. If we’re seeing the threat of the PRC, then why are we letting them become such huge stakeholders in out nuclear energy & other areas of the UK?-not that I support the Nuclear industry anyway.
    In no way do I support the PRC’s annexation & destruction of fragile coral islands in the S China sea in disregard of existing international agreements & law. We may be able to add the odd ship to a US task force exercising freedom of navigation. Sending the prime major asset of our navy there woefully under armed & equipped is folly.

    • Until we have a sufficiently large RN this is posturing and misleads the public into believing 2% is adequate. NOT sending ships because we ONLY spend 2% is the real way to look at it. The rest is more of the usual short termism and self deception that various Government have engaged in for 20 years or more. Send an Astute to Diego Garcia with publicity of it surfaced there. Interesting.

  7. I can’t see Singapore, Brunei or Malaysia hosting an extra UK base. While all of these countries have fears over China none want to damage relations with China. We already have an army base in South China Sea and naval facilities in Singapore. We don’t have any frigates to forward deploy but even if we did Singapore is easily capable of hosting it as it does with the USA LCS without a British base.

    Increased training with FPDA allies and regular deployments of QE class aircraft carriers in the region are what is needed rather than political jesters designed to piss China off.

  8. Absolutely agree, a Pacific pivot to work alongside our close allies, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, should absolutely be an aim.As has been said though, until the Royal Navy has been increased in size, we just don’t have the spare assets.
    New Labour and the Conservatives severely damaged the Navy (and air force) to pay for their pointless Afghanistan intervention, that achieved absolutely sod all, as we all knew it would.

    It would appear the rots been stopped, but we need to start building back the dangerous capability cuts. 3% GDP, ring fenced in defence ( and spent wisely) would do this.

    • Agree completely with the need to re-build our Commonwealth links and get the RN and our military back to the concept of backing up our trade and “soft power.” (talk quietly and but carry a big stick).

      However, if so, somebody needs to get a grip and do some serious strategic thinking (like China does). We need to make sure we have infrastructure and back-up if it all goes Pete Tong – else we’ll have Mr Bean captured by the Iranians all over again. We need ships, people, and air-cover. No point in sending a patrol boat if there is not the threat of a bigger one behind it, and and even bigger one behind that ….etc. Oh yes, and they need some serious offence missiles as well as great self-defence.

      So somebody in Government/MoD needs to pull their finger out first. Remember how vulnerable our ships and Singapore were in WWII.

  9. Christmas is coming early!

    I wonder how our relations are with India? I know they wanted closer cooperation with us at one point.

  10. I think it does make sense to have a permanent base in the South China Seas. Someone mentioned that we have facilities in Singapore, true but in times of heightened tensions would a third country allow their bases to be used. I’m not sure.
    I think that Brunei would be a good location, we have troops already there, a naval and airfield facility could be used not only by the British but by the Americans and Australians. This would give a good use of the base as well as showing the world that the UK is not withdrawing from the world but is willing to take its place in the world.
    The sad part of this story is that the nation needs to undo the damage done by a Labour Government when it withdrew from the East of Suez and let existing bases run down. This was a short sighted move that possibly has come home to haunt us. Possibly the decision to join the EEC was for world stability also a mistake as it meant the end of the Commonwealth as Britain redirected its efforts to the North Atlantic and Europe. (the last sentence is not a Brexit comment)

    • Problem is Brunei is being kept afloat by Chinese investment. None of our regional allies have ever been keen on allowing bases in their country to be used to defend allies that was a major reason for closing the Singapore base. If we need to defende FPDA allies from China then we will have plenty of facilities to use. In peace time it’s better to focus on the Indian Ocean where we have a strong hand with three naval bases Oman, Bahrain and Diego Garcia and we could cut chinas access to its main source of oil in the event of hostilities and there is very little they could do about it. Basing forces in the South China Sea just serves to piss them off for no reason.

  11. There was a time when the South China Sea was as much a Royal Navy ‘boating lake’ as the Med’…………

    As for a base, that’s just silly talk. A product of a UK defence mind set that thinks in terms of us being a land power.

    Do the Chinese need to be kept in check or balanced? Yes. But China makes money through trade. War is expensive. They have no means of projecting real power. They are locked by terrain and strong powers landward and by the sea and strong powers on the other………

    We have facilities in Singapore, there is Australia, and Maura too I suppose. Never mind Japan and Hawaii…..

    This is where the carrier strategy falls apart over having a good number of first rate escorts and maintaining SSN numbers at 12. Not buying enough MPA. Cutting back on the RFA. And not having our own reconnaissance satellites. There is no point on explaining why on a blog like this because places like this think every defence question can be answered with the words ‘fast jet’ or ‘attack helicopter’……………

  12. Unfortunately, China is a is not going to be satisfied with more trade.. They have aid so. They want “their” own territory back, including non-Chinese Taiwan, and the huge area of the South China Sea.

  13. The Navy struggles to get a frigate to patrol the channel when Putin’s Navy comes past, why on earth should we be keen to patrol parts of the Pacific?
    Japan and the USA dont need our help.

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