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Foreign Policy

Britain Is Going in the Wrong Direction in the South China Sea

Jan 29, 2019
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

The recent actions by the British Royal Navy in the South China Sea (SCS) tell the world that it is going in the wrong direction based on the strategic misjudgment of its commanders. What the British Royal Navy has done in recent years in Southeast Asia,in the SCS in particular, has not only harmed the friendly relations between China and Britain, but also made new troubles in Southeast Asia. It will cause more damage if the British Royal Navy does not change course. 

As a NATO member and a junior special ally of the Unites States, Britain is trying to please the US with its unwise Naval strategy in Southeast Asia in disregard of the golden era of bilateral relations between China and Britain. On August 31, 2018, British Royal Navy ship HMS Albion deliberately trespassed into the territorial waters of China’s Xisha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government, infringing on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. China expressed strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition. In order to safeguard its own sovereignty and territorial integrity, China dispatched military vessels to identify the Royal Navy ship and warned it off. Such an encounter is rare in recent years. It is certainly not a friendly exchange, but carries a sense of confrontation, and it is also harmful to the peace and stability in the SCS. The Royal Navy ship is the second foreign country’s military force after the US that carried out military operations in the territorial waters of the Xisha Islands in recent years, and it is not an isolated incident.

Between January 11 and 16, 2019, British Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll conducted operations in the SCS together with the US guided missile destroyer USS McCampbell. It is reported that the two vessels conducted communications drills and a personnel exchange during the operation. The joint drills reveal that the two navies are planning to get ready for future military operations in the SCS, and that the Royal Navy is ready to follow the US in its freedom of navigation operations in the SCS in accordance with its long-term plan.

The British and US navies’ joint drills and their possible planned follow-up are counterproductive and harmful at a time when the situation in the SCS is calm and stable, and China and all 10 members of the ASEAN countries have made significant progress in promoting the stability and peace in the SCS by agreeing to the single draft text of the Code of Conduct in the SCS in 2018.  

As part of the Royal Navy’s long-term strategic plan for the Southeast Asia, British Defense Minister Gavin Williamson indicated at the beginning of 2019 that Britain is planning to build two military bases in Brunei and Singapore to meet the needs of making Britain a powerful global naval power again. Obviously, the Defense Minister has found that the two existing training and logistics stations in Brunei and Singapore are not enough to support the expansion of the Royal Navy’s operations in the region. The Royal Navy’s joint drills with the US in the SCS, and its imitation of US navy’s infringement of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity near the Xisha Islands have made people worry that the expansion of the Royal Navy’s operations is mostly intended to support US military operations in the SCS. Such a plan, if seriously implemented, might cause further damage to the peace and stability in the SCS, making new troubles for Sino-British relations. The build-up of the two military bases for the British Royal Navy would not be welcomed by Asian countries and people. It is ridiculous for the British Royal Navy to come a long way from Europe to Asia in order to support the military operations in Asia by another non-Asia country. Asia is not a military drill ground for the US and Britain, nor a battle field for them. Asian countries and people can manage their affairs well on their own without introducing more military forces into Asia from non-Asian countries. In the era of peace and development, Asian countries welcome more trade, investment, and cultural exchange programs from the US and Britain, not their military operations in the region.

It is unwise for the British Royal Navy to follow the US in its intentional provocations against China in the SCS. The British Royal Navy needs to know that the US and China have solid bilateral mutual trust, military exchange mechanisms, and cooperative programs to counterbalance the negative factors in their bilateral military relations. The Royal Navy, as a follower to the US, has to think twice if it might suffer more losses when it lacks the same mechanisms and programs that the US has with China.

The British Royal Navy would find it beneficial not to follow the US to make troubles in the SCS, but to take the initiative to further strengthen bilateral military ties with China. After all, a strong relationship between China and Britain benefits both countries, and it should not be harmed by the Royal Navy’s wrong choice in the SCS.

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