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South China Sea tribunal will have 'a direct impact on our nation's wealth and security'

4 min read

Britons should worry about this week's ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on China’s maritime claims, says Lord West, 'because it reveals to us the type of superpower China is becoming.'

This week, on July 12th in The Hague in the Netherlands, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled in favour of the Philippines’ case against China on the specious nature of China’s maritime claims. To many Britons, this must seem fairly peripheral to our interests. Certainly, politicians are distracted, with leadership contests on both sides of the House, whilst our civil servants and diplomats are contemplating a complete overhaul of trade and foreign policies, and facing the possibility of break up of the United Kingdom.

Despite this, the ruling is central to the interests of the United Kingdom. Not simply because of the ruling itself, but because of the nature of China’s claims, over one of the world’s largest trade routes – one which sees the transit of much Asia-bound British shipping – and its implicit threat to use force in enforcing those claims. China’s generous definition of its sovereign claims – over the adjacent territory of more than five regional states – reminds us of Russia’s invasion and illegal referendum in Ukraine and Crimea last year. It also has implications for future oil and gas rights in the region, with all the attentive increase in regional tensions this is likely to bring, and potential for future maritime dirsuption.

The case between the Philippines and China is a deeply significant for the UK. First, because it will decide on the legality of China’s controversial “9-dashed line”, and challenge China’s attempt to use historic rights in its claims. A separate danger is that other states opportunistically begin imitating these claims on adjacent waterways and vital trade routes: Russia’s behavior in the Arctic springs to mind, but doubtless there might be many other cases causing a crisis in global shipping. Pointing to past Imperial Chinese ownership of the South China Sea is no more useful than if modern Italy claimed large parts of the Mediterranean Ocean based on Imperial Roman history.

Britons should also worry about yesterday’s ruling because it reveals to us the type of superpower China is becoming. While China has been a strong beneficiary of the current liberal international trade order, and generally been a strong contributor to the system, there are worrying signs that, as it power increases, and growth of its economy slows, it feels less obliged by these norms. Although it signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it steadfastly refuses to accept those rules as binding. Instead, confronted with Manila’s courageous lawsuit, it has mobilized a massive media campaign across the region, and rushed to change facts on the ground using its military. Last summer, it began a serious campaign of dredging sand onto low-tide reefs and militarizing the resulting new islands with airfields and troops, all around the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone.

Naturally, it would seem that given our current circumstances, there is little that Britain can do. Some might argue that these goings-on are “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing” as Chamberlain once said. Others might argue that while important, such concerns must be balanced with our economic reliance on China as a trade partner.

My life has been spent at sea. I have made my career working in the Royal Navy to safeguard Britain’s interests for the past 50 years. Since I was a young midshipman, I have watched the importance of ship-borne trade only get greater and greater, accelerated by the “container revolution” and the rise of China as a global manufacturing hub. Britain has 19th largest trading fleet in the world, accounting for 0.8 per cent of the world’s trading fleet; more if one counts the shipping of the Isle of Man, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands, which all fly the Red Ensign, and Global shipping is run from London.

Most of our Asia-bound shipping transits the South China Sea, with some assessing it sees more than £3 trillion worth of global trade pass through it each year. The UK has a deep, historic, and strategic interests in the region. In 2012, our exports to South East Asia and the Pacific Rim rose 20 per cent, year on year. Our stock investment in Asia amounts to just over £96 billion. Britain is party to the only multilateral defence agreement, the Five Powers Defence Arrangement, and has a growing security dialogue with Japan.

Tuesday’s ruling is of immense importance to the United Kingdom, it has a direct impact on our nation’s wealth and security, something that the Prime Minister should make clear.  The idea that great powers might stretch their rights and privileges over those of small states by force is something we have long sought to turn our back on. The idea that a rising power might seek to wrest control of a major trade route by force is one that we cannot countenance. 

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