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”:
- 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”
- 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.