Operations by Japanese and British warships to assert freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea have been criticized by Beijing as destabilizing and provocative.
On September 13, three Japanese surface warships and a submarine took part in a training exercise in an undisclosed area of the South China Sea. It was the first time that a Japanese submarine had conducted such activities in the disputed waters. In response, China’s foreign ministry called on non-claimant countries to “refrain from doing anything that will undermine peace and stability” in the area. China’s jurisdictional claims within its expansive nine-dash line – including the right to regulate the passage of foreign military vessels – are not consistent with the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and are therefore not recognized by the international community.
Earlier in September, it was reported that the British amphibious assault ship HMS Albion had entered the territorial waters of the disputed Paracel Islands on August 31. In 1996, China drew archipelagic straight baselines around the Paracels which many countries regard as excessive and incompatible with UNCLOS. The aim of the Albion’s mission appears to have been to challenge those excessive territorial sea claims. However, Beijing angrily accused the British warship of violating Chinese and international law, and infringing the country’s sovereignty.
The Japanese and British naval actions will be welcomed by the US which has called on other countries to increase their naval presence in the South China Sea to defend freedom of navigation. Under President Trump, the US Navy has conducted seven “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPS) in the Paracels and Spratlys.
In 2018 the UK has sent three warships to Asia, the highest number since 2013. British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has said these deployments are not a “flash in the pan” but part of a long-term commitment to regional security.
But sustaining a long-term British naval commitment to the region not only faces practical problems but also runs political risks for Britain.
The UK only has 19 destroyers and frigates with which to maintain a global presence. Increased Russian naval activities in the North Atlantic means that the Royal Navy will remain operationally focused on Europe rather than Asia.
Economic difficulties in the aftermath of Brexit in 2019 could lead to cuts in the defence budget which will further reduce the Royal Navy’s ability to send ships to Asia. And China’s state-run media has already warned that if the UK continues to challenge the country’s “core interests” in the South China Sea, talks on a post-Brexit Sino-British free trade agreement could be sunk.
Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary first appeared in ISEAS Commentary and it can be downloaded at https://bit.ly/2Q2W9jY