UK Wants to be a New Trouble Maker by Cruising the South China Sea

By Lan Shunzheng

A range of new weapons and equipment made their first appearance at a military parade on Zhurihe training base on 30th July. Chinese troops received battle training. Over the East China Sea, the PLA escorted foreign aircraft out of China’s air defense identification zone, while in the South China Sea, the PLA engaged in standard fleet maneuvers.

Just a few days before Chinese Army Day, however, UK’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced that Britain will send aircraft carriers to “patrol” in the South China Sea.

On 27th July, after the annual Australia-UK Ministerial (AUKMIN) meeting, Johnson unveiled the UK’s “grand plan” to enforce freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Britain is currently building two new aircraft carriers, and one of the first things they will do once they are operational, Johnson declared, is set out on a “freedom of navigation” operation to the South China Sea, under the “freedom of navigation” rule.

The same day UK Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon proclaimed that Britain will dispatch one of its aircraft carriers to “patrol” the South China Sea to strengthen its maritime position. Even though the exact date of deployment has not yet been finalized, Sir Michael Fallon asserted that Britain would not be deterred by China from sailing through the South China Sea.

It is probable that the aircraft carrier to which Sir Fallon and Mr. Johnson were referring will be the bigger of the two aircraft carriers in the British navy, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is currently undergoing sea trials in Scotland and is expected to be operational by the end of the year.

Causing trouble?

After WWII, with the decline of its power and the emergence of national independence movements in Asia, Britain gradually withdrew from the historical stage in this region.

However, the past “sun never setting empire” has obviously rediscovered its interest in the Asian-Pacific region in recent years.

A careful analysis reveals that the UK has caused trouble to China on several occasions since last year.

On 24th October 2016 the Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) and Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) held a joint exercise, codenamed “Guardian North”, in the northern part of Japan.

On 22nd October the same year, four RAF Typhoon fighter jets took off from Malaysia and arrived at Misawa Air Base in Japan, accompanied by tanker aircraft and transport planes. Around 200 UK air force troops took part in the exercise.

This was an unusual military exercise. It was the first time that JASDF had held a joint exercise with any country other than the United States in Japan, and it was also the first time UK combat jets had flown into eastern Asia in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War.

However, Britain had previously given pre-warning of this “cruise” in the South China Sea.

Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, announced in a speech in early December of 2016 that Britain’s two new aircraft carriers would make an appearance in the Pacific once they enter into operation in 2020.

Empty Posturing?

The South China Sea is a vital maritime channel that links East Asia with the Indian Ocean, and many countries depend on it for trade and energy transport.

Based on recent research, the transshipment volume of petroleum and natural gas through the South China Sea is 4 times that of the Suez Canal, and 16 times that of the Panama Canal.

So it is understandable that the UK, once the supreme maritime power, wants to stick its nose into this distant and juicy strategic passage, in an attempt to recapture the lost glories of its empire.

So will the British aircraft carriers really come?

My feeling is that this declaration by UK amounts to little more than political posturing.

First, from a practical perspective, the UK has no effective military base in Asia, and thus it has neither the capacity nor the support to mount a military intervention in the affairs of remote Asia.

Even though Britain and Japan have engaged in a joint military operation, this did not reach the level of any alliance of the past. If UK insists on engaging in its “cruise”, it will certainly provoke anger among countries around the South China Sea that have suffered in the past from colonialism.

Secondly, from the perspective of motive, Britain’s interference in the South China Sea issue seems largely to derive from “sour grapes” and resentment over China’s rapid rise.

From 21st to 28th July this year, a joint maritime military exercise codenamed “Maritime Cooperation 2017” was held by China and Russia in the Baltic Sea. This was the first time that three Chinese naval vessels had taken part in an inner sea military exercise in Europe.

Prior to the exercise, the British Royal navy rushed a 23-class frigate, HMS Richmond, to track the Chinese naval formation as it passed through the English Channel. However, one of the ships China had sent was its most advanced DDG 174, the Hefei, which rather outshone its lackluster British tracker.

One British netizen commented:

“Now when we really need a good show of navy force close to home waters, where are our ships? Oh yes, cut back and sold for scrap most of them, and a white elephant of an aircraft carrier that the aircraft supplier cannot sort out the faults in its computers so we might actually be able to fly planes from it. Perhaps the Dutch can ‘lend lease’ us a few carrier aircraft to use?”

It seems that the UK foreign minister’s grand announcement of a “South China Sea cruise” may be little more than empty posturing for face saving.

The status of South China Sea

What is the current status in the China Sea?

Following the farce of the so-called “South China Sea arbitration”, the current situation has actually tended to stabilize.

On 24th July this year Philippine President Duterte made his second state of the nation address since his inauguration. In a speech that lasted more than two hours, President Duterte conveyed special thanks to China for helping his country to build infrastructure, and said that tensions between China and Philippine had eased.

As was reported by Chinese Commercial News of the Philippines, Duterte emphasized that the people of the Philippines were looking forward to a joint oil exploration venture in the South China Sea.

According to a BBC report of 24th July this year, Vietnam too has ceased its natural gas exploration activity in contested waters in the South China Sea.

It is apparent that major countries in this region want to seek common ground, but other countries that have nothing to do with the region cannot stop their interference.

The US and Japan have been attempting to stir things up with calls for a “South China Sea Cruise” and “Freedom of Navigation”. Now Britain too wants to make its presence felt through some grandiose declaration.

But it matters little to China if Britain truly intends to act on these statements. China has nothing to fear. As a Chinese saying goes “When friends come we greet them with good wine, but when wolves come we take aim with our guns.” Whether the UK wants to be friend or wolf, and the way in which it will be treated, is entirely dependent on the choices made by the British government.

We believe that the British government will make a wise choice not to engage in empty bravado that brings nothing but costs and losses.

China is the world second largest importing country. It will import over $ 8 trillion over the next 5 years. The Chinese market volume and its growth rate are two key elements that render China a priority for Britain’s global trade.

With enhanced economic cooperation and a progressing relationship between the two countries, will Britain navy ships truly come to the South China Sea to create havoc and damage to the interests of both parties?

(Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of www.cnmatters.com
Lan Shunzheng,private think tank researcher)