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Wed, 30 September 2020

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Britain has a responsibility to stand up to China over freedom of navigation

Britain has a responsibility to stand up to China over freedom of navigation

Nowhere is that more under threat than in the waters of South East Asia, writes Andrew Bowie MP. | PA Images

4 min read

As we look to a post-Covid world, protecting the integrity of the international rules-based order has never been more important.

Little commented on in the West, between 2014 and 2018, China launched more submarines, warships, amphibious vessels, and auxiliaries than the number of ships currently serving in the individual navies of Germany, India, Spain or the United Kingdom.

The Chinese fleet, numbering 335 vessels - outnumbering the USA’s 296 - demonstrates the determination to make good on the plan of President Hu Jintao in 2012 to transform China into a ‘Maritime Power’.

No one has more right to be worried about this development than the other countries around the South China Sea which, despite its name, is not simply the nautical area below southern China.

It stretches from Malaysia to the Philippines, from Vietnam to the edge of Indonesia, encompassing over 1,400,000 square miles of marine territory, including large chunks of what are internationally agreed as the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines.

In April of this year, China created two new administrative districts for the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands, sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel operating in contested waters and Indonesian vessels reported increased surveillance activity by aggressive Chinese warships.

China’s claim in the South China Sea is encircled by a demarcation line dubbed the “nine-dash line”, though a tenth dash was added in 2013 to encircle the entirety of the independent nation of Taiwan.

China has made vague claims over this for decades. In a 2016, the Court of Arbitration at the Hague, ruled that the country had no legal right to the territory in the nine-dash line, having never historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or the resources contained within it.

Supported by the overwhelming majority of countries, including the UK, the EU, and the USA, the ruling was opposed by Russia, Syria and China.

Instead of ceasing its illegal activity, China escalated its activities in the region building it’s ‘Great Wall of Sand’ – a series of artificial islands in an attempt to claim the waters.

But why should we in Britain care? What interest has Britain in this patch of water on the other side of the world?

In the South China Sea, enhanced and increased British freedom of navigation exercises alongside those conducted by our allies would challenge Chinese aggression.

Well, this is not about Britain’s interests, though they are considerable – nearly 12% of our seaborne trade, with a value of £97 billion, passes through the South China Sea each year. But it is a fight in Britain’s interests. This is about upholding international law and the rules-based international order.

As we look to a post-Covid world, protecting the integrity of the international rules-based order has never been more important.

Trade deals, vitally important that they are, remain secondary to ensuring that global trade can continue unimpeded and that the rights of smaller nations are not crushed by regional bullies.

In the South China Sea, enhanced and increased British freedom of navigation exercises alongside those conducted by our allies would challenge Chinese aggression.

Adopting the new Pentagon strategy of “strategic predictability, operational unpredictability”, would be welcomed by our allies in the region and demonstrate our commitment to defend and uphold free trade and the rules-based order.

It is incredibly positive that the HMS Queen Elizabeth is set to sail to the Asia Pacific region on her first operational deployment in 2021, accompanied by F-35s from the US Marine Corps. But we need, now, to invest in and build more for our Royal Navy.

The National Shipbuilding Strategy was a good start, but progress is slow. Our first bases East of Suez in fifty years are very welcome, but without anything to project from them, are mostly sitting idle. We need more frigates, destroyers and more sailors to man them.

We have a responsibility to maintain freedom on the high seas. Nowhere is more under threat than in the waters of South East Asia.

 

Andrew Bowie is the Conservative MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

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