- The integrated review seeks to embolden the UK’s influence in the Indo-Pacific, outlining a ‘tilt’ to the region in which the South China Sea is a crucial component, a ‘chokepoint’ that may threaten the UK’s post-Brexit reliance on export trade.
- The review emphasises a ‘systemic challenge’ in China’s rise. The UK’s new aircraft carrier has been deployed to the Indo-Pacific and will undertake South China Sea Freedom of Navigation sailings that will likely be met with Chinese contestation both diplomatically and by demonstrations of Chinese power by way of ‘flyovers’.
- Questions remain over the UK’s capacity to sustain a presence in the region, with sparse logistical support for long-term deployments and little discussion in the review on how to integrate the UK into existing institutions.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a significant overhaul in British foreign policy in March 2021 with an Integrated Review, titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age, which emphasised a ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific region. Immediately, a Global Times article argued the ‘tilt’ was a thinly veiled attempt to counter-balance China, following the US’ footsteps.
The review recognised the Indo-Pacific region as vital to the post-Brexit UK, critical to its economy, security, and values in supporting open societies. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ itself is something of a rebranding of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ with the geo-political aim of incorporating India, the world’s largest democracy, into a region increasingly defined by China’s rise. The integrated review reaffirms the centrality of the US-UK relationship and the review appears to hold an elective affinity with the 2011 ‘pivot’ to Asia under the Obama Administration and a 2019 US Department of Defense paper that made clear the US’ intention to challenge China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
The integrated review recognises China as a “systemic competitor”, providing a range of challenges on the grounds of ‘International Order’ and ‘Economic Statecraft’. However, crucially for the UK, a proud naval nation, China’s increasing reticence towards abiding by the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the distinct modernisation of its maritime fleet, especially in its Southern Fleet, is challenging what the UK defines as a “resilient ocean”. In recognising various ‘choke points’ around the world, the integrated review makes explicit reference to the South China Sea, underscoring its centrality in the ‘tilt’. China recognises the UK as a former naval power bristling at the changing of the guard in the Indo-Pacific, desperately aligning itself with the US to maintain its importance in the region.
Why is the South China Sea so important?
China has since 2009 signalled a new assertiveness in realising its broad claims in the South China Sea outlined in a ‘Nine Dash Line’ on Chinese maps and included in Chinese passports. The claims are grounded on China’s historical trading influence in the region, yet eschew the competing claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. China sees the South China Sea as a sacrosanct territorial ‘core interest’, akin to Tibet and Xinjiang, defendable via force if necessary.
Following clashes with Vietnamese forces in 1974 and 1988 and the Philippines in 1995, since 2009 China has increasingly quarrelled with naval and private fishing and oil exploration vessels from littoral states. China’s lavishly-funded Southern fleet comprising of state-of-the-art coast-guard vessels and emboldened deep-sea fisherman are intent on realising China’s territorial claims, harassing vessels, military or otherwise, that seek to challenge them. Diplomatic spats with ASEAN states are common and great-power tensions have been increasing on account of provocative Chinese maritime manoeuvres that seek to expel vessels from Chinese waters, forcing ‘trespassing’ vessels to swerve off course to avoid collisions.
Moreover, China has embarked on an audacious island-building campaign, that seeks to convert partially submerged shoals into naval and air bases strategically placed in the South China Sea, drawing the ire of fellow claimants and the US. In 2016 an International Tribunal ruled against China in favour of the Philippines on Island building. China instantly scorned the finding despite far-reaching international criticism.
China’s rejection of the rules-based international order in the South China Sea is a reminder to London of its interests at stake elsewhere, such as Hong Kong. British parliamentarians have increasingly argued that the Joint Sino-British Declaration, which promised 50 years of non-interference in the former colony, has been broken by the Chinese government since its crackdown on civil and political liberties.
Thus, China’s increasing rejection of UNCLOS will elicit further frustration in the UK. Upholding UNCLOS rules in the South China Sea will be central to the Indo-Pacific tilt. The UK as it embarks on its ambitious maritime and export strategy has a clear vested interest in the interpretation of UNCLOS: the South China Sea route is essential for European access to 8 of the world’s 10 busiest shipping ports with crucial ports such as Busan, South Korea and Shanghai and Ningbo in China. As the UK seeks to enhance its ‘global’ profile, unhindered access through the South China Sea is key to its economic security.
Freedom of Navigation – How far is the UK willing to go?
Central to defending the ‘rules and laws’ of the sea are so-called ‘Freedom of Navigation’ sailings. Following the 2016 ruling, the United States has embarked on frequent Freedom of Navigation sailings and the integrated review has highlighted that the preservation of freedom of navigation is essential to the UK’s national interests. In May 2021, the UK’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth embarked on an ambitious deployment that includes the Indo-Pacific as part of an allied task group, including the US and the Netherlands, and UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has confirmed that Freedom of Navigation sailings through the South China Sea will constitute a central component of the Carrier Strike Group’s deployment.
The US’ Freedom of Navigation sailings are often met with stern, but composed, rebuttals from Chinese authorities on the artificial islands and in Beijing, yet the presence of the UK’s most prestigious ship risks a more assertive Chinese response. Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy Naval Commander, anticipates Chinese contention through an ‘overfly’ of the strike group, testing the Carrier Group’s responses, and potentially the presence of Chinese submarines to signal Chinese irritation with the sailing.
British commitments to sail through the South China Sea have a precedent of drawing the ire of Beijing. In 2019, a speech by then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson regarding Royal Navy sailings in the South China Sea saw China cancel a crucial trade visit by then Chancellor Philip Hammond to Beijing. Whilst it appears the UK is insistent on committing to symbolic Freedom of Navigation sailing in 2021, perhaps emboldened by the presence of US F-35 jets on board its aircraft carrier, the deployment that is so central to the Indo-Pacific tilt risks entrenching already increasingly sour economic relations between China and the UK. This is at a time when the UK is increasingly reliant on economic partnerships beyond Europe.
Moreover, the inherent risk of miscalculation that arises when two competing navies come into close proximity is ever-present. Tense encounters between US and Chinese vessels in 2009 highlight the risk of Freedom of Navigation sailings in leading to broader diplomatic disputes and potential conflict. A miscalculation by either navy could see rapid and potentially deadly escalation.
Whilst the Carrier Strike Group’s Freedom of Navigation will symbolise the UK’s resolve, questions have been asked about the long-term capacity of the UK to frequently undertake such sailings. The UK has minimal permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific beyond Diego Garcia (an Island loaned to the US in the Indian Ocean), a military jungle training base in Brunei and a Royal Navy logistics base in Duqm, Oman. No inclination to secure further bases has been signalled by the review, which has led to Chinese rebuttals that the Indo-Pacific tilt is little more than a “war of words” by the UK. Moreover, a reticence for the Carrier Strike Group to sail through the Taiwan Strait at the very north of the South China Sea betrays an intention to tacitly cede such waters to China, according to the UK Chair of the Defence Select Committee MP Tobias Ellwood, highlighting the limits of the Indo-Pacific Tilt.
Whilst doubt abounds on the UK’s ambitions and its ability to realise them in the South China Sea, the commitment of one of the world’s largest and most advanced navies to the region, however feasible, signals more uncertainty for the South China Sea. China’s defence spending offers a tangible symbol of its rise for many of its neighbours – Chinese military spending has seen a 500% rise in real terms since 1997. Moreover, defence spending in general in the region has risen with littoral states such as Vietnam and Malaysia spending heavily, and Japan in 2020 marking a ninth consecutive year of military spending rise. Australia and the US’s eagerness to demonstrate their presence in the region underscores a real risk of potentially catastrophic security dilemma dynamics that lies beneath the inherent security challenge of the South China Se. The arrival of the Royal Navy signals the UK contributing to, not untangling such dynamics.
Greater engagement with existing institutions in the region could strengthen the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt. The integrated review does signal an intention to bolster ASEAN as part of a broader commitment to multilateralism, aiming to become an ASEAN ‘Dialogue Partner’, yet there is no recognition or discussion on how the UK could approach the paralysis within ASEAN on the South China Sea issue. Nor is there a clear commitment from the UK to work with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) of Australia, India, the US and Japan, as its European neighbour France has indicated it will do.
The extent to which the UK can realise its lofty ambitions in the South China Sea remains to be seen, however the shift to the Indo-Pacific from another key European Power and one that Beijing once enjoyed a ‘Golden Relationship’ with as recently as 2015 will alarm China. It highlights the fracture between both countries that has emerged since the Hong Kong protests of 2019 and has been solidified with British parliamentary criticism of China’s actions in Xinjiang, as well as China’s Wolf-Warrior diplomacy with key UK partner Australia during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. China will be aware of the significance of a former Imperial power seeking to re-assert its significance in the region, as ‘century of humiliation’ rhetoric still colours much Chinese foreign policy discourse, and can elicit furious backlash amongst China’s notorious netizens. British actions will thus be monitored with consternation in Beijing, starting with the UK Carrier Strike Group’s sailings in the South China Sea next month.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.