Implications of the dispatch of warships by the UK and Japan to the South China Sea


The South China Sea is home to important international shipping routes, with about a third of global trade flowing through the region annually. This region is also considered as rich in natural resources including oil and gas. China has put claims on almost all of the waters, and making construction on some features in the region by stating that it has the right to defend those claims. In recent years, many countries including the US, Japan, the UK, Australia,... have repeatedly issued warnings about China's illegal construction and militarization of these features. They insist on maintaining "the South China Sea as a free, open region with free trade". Yet, China ignores all and demands all countries outside the region not to take actions that might be harmful to peace and stability in the South China Sea.

At the end of August, 2018, the HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship passed by the Paracel Islands to assert freedom of navigation and challenge Beijing's excessive claims in the region. China responded by deploying two helicopters followed by a frigate. As the Chinese Foreign Ministry put, “The relevant actions by the British ship violated Chinese law and relevant international law, and infringed on China’s sovereignty”, and that “China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty and security.“

On September 13, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force deployed the Kuroshimo submarine together with three warships for military exercises in the South China Sea. As put by Asahi, a Japanese newspaper, this is the first time since World War II that a Japanese submarine participated in naval exercises in the South China Sea. In this connection, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman “urged these countries to exercise caution and not to harm peace and stability of the region”.

Since early this year, US ships and aircrafts regularly entered the South China Sea to demonstrate Washington's opposition to Chinese claims and were asked by Chinese forces to leave the region. For example, on August 10th, the US-based P-8A flew over China's occupied features, including Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef (Gac Ma) and Mischief Reef. In particular, on its flight over Subi Reef, the US aircraft detected 86 Chinese vessels of all kinds including coast guard boats. During its journey, the US squad received six warnings from the Chinese military saying that US aircrafts have entered China's airspace and should leave immediately, to avoid misjudgment.

Speaking at a forum in Taipei on promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region on August 31, James Stavridis, former NATO commander, said China's illegal development of artificial islands and the militarization of those islands in the South China Sea had created “the biggest geostrategic challenge in the region”, and also brought the highest potential for conflict there. As he put, “like-minded countries – including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, France and Britain, which have exercised freedom of navigation in the waters – should take “collective action together” to form a “resolute front” in dealing with Beijing”. “If we have a resolute front, over time, I do believe China will be more willing to negotiate to have a diplomatic solution”, he said, adding that this would take patience and time.

UK by Naval technology




UK Warship - Image by Naval Technology

The British and Japanese ships crossed the South China Sea last month. The two operations might not be planned together, but not a coincidence, which can be seen from the relatively close timing. They might do so to avoid a US presence that might irritate China. Then the near simultaneous operations might also diffuse China's attention and minimize the angry reactions.

In the last few years, Japanese officials have been referring to the "Strategy of Presence", suggesting a Japanese understanding that amidst the Sino-US strategic competition, it can hardly have major economic and military influences, so its presence in the region should be maintained. The Japanese behaviors seem silent, but in fact are cluster attacks to destabilize the areas surrounding China.

The Japanese interests have been tied to the US and are greatly dependent on US economic and military influence, even to the extent that the collapse of relations with the US is a complete failure for Japan, so Japan must fully unite with the US. At present, challenging China is the best way to show Japan’s goodwill towards America. Australia and the United Kingdom are also doing the same. Recently, Chinese Ambassador Du Qiwen joined the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, whose speech was stopped by Nauru’s President because of his insolent attitude. Despite the long distance, the UK also joined the US to send two patrol vessels to the South China Sea. The UK has developed extensive economic ties with China. Among European countries, the UK was the first to join AIIB, followed by 14 European countries. The Sino-British FTA negotiations are also progressing faster than the Sino-European FTA. Despite the UK’s efforts to come closer to the US in political terms, its interests are not entirely in line with the US. Over the years, the UK has enhanced economic engagements with China, which caused unhappiness for the US. So the UK’s presence in the South China Sea is to counterbalance and rebalance its relations with the US and China, and to show that the UK still regards the US, not China, as "big brother".

JP-by Reuters

Japanese Warship - Image by Military Times

The UK's and Japan’s operations in the South China Sea might help: i) express a viewpoint to support free and open waters in accordance with international law; ii) enhance their presence in these strategic waters; iii) support maritime freedom at the region; iv) object to China's development and militarization of the features in the South China Sea, not recognizing China's territorial claims in the region over the years. In brief, in the near future, countries outside the region including the US, Japan and the UK will not give up freedom of navigation in the region to prevent China’s domination of the South China Sea, a vital shipping route linking Europe and Asia. In addition, they will take even stronger measures to put increasing pressures on China over the South China Sea./.


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