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“Global Britain” on the line in the South China Sea

Joint freedom of navigation patrols by the UK and France would be more convincing to a regional audience.

HMS Sutherland on patrol (Photo: Ministry of Defence, UK)
HMS Sutherland on patrol (Photo: Ministry of Defence, UK)

During a trip to Australia this month, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that HMS Sutherland, a British frigate currently deployed to Australia and the Western Pacific, would return from its tour via the South China Sea, “making it clear our navy has a right to do that”. Williamson is the third British minister to commit the country’s naval forces to Asian waters in as many years, following his predecessor Michael Fallon in 2016 and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in 2017.

British patrols in the South China Sea are a good idea. They would tangibly illustrate the UK’s global footprint at a time when European questions have sucked much of the oxygen from Britain’s foreign policy debate, and when doubts are growing about Britain’s ability to sustain its influence in Asia. A British contribution to wider efforts to push back against China’s growing assertiveness would be welcomed across much of the region. But to be meaningful, patrols must go beyond one-off demonstrations of the flag.

The UK would send a powerful message by following the more ambitious freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) conducted by the US. This would involve deliberately sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied features in the Spratly Islands, particularly those that have no legal entitlement to a territorial sea. Fallon and Johnson both shied away from backing such operations, preferring to frame freedom of navigation in safer, generic terms. Fallon, in fact, appeared to rule out plans for US-style operations near “disputed islands” in the South China Sea.

Such a halfway-house approach succeeds merely in irritating Beijing, while suggesting a widening gulf between Britain’s rhetoric and actions as a global security actor.

Freedom of navigation patrols, as the Lowy Institute’s interactive history of US patrols reveals, are not about power projection, presence, or deterrence. They serve a limited and specific purpose: to challenge maritime claims that are excessive under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Although the finer legal distinctions governing passage regimes under UNCLOS may be technical, they are important: to uphold the correct rules the spurious ones must be actively rebutted. Failure to do so allows China to argue that its excessive claims are accepted by major maritime nations, apart from the US.

The US has made these challenges repeatedly over the past two years. Other states, including Japan and Australia, sail through the South China Sea but not in ways that obviously challenge Chinese or other claims. Indeed, Australia’s government has proceeded warily and demured on US requests for joint patrols. But instead of leaving it to the US alone and allowing the present freedoms of the seas to erode, it is high time that a broader range of states step into the fray.

Of course, there is a risk that China would impede or confront the Royal Navy rather than the much larger US Navy, especially now that Williamson has regrettably announced HMS Sutherland’s deployment so far in advance. All the more reason, then, for the UK to seek safety in numbers.

This is also a prime opportunity to breathe life into the 2016 call by then French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian for European states to “coordinate to ensure a presence that is regular and visible” in maritime Asia. Le Drian is now Foreign Minister under the new, activist President Emmanuel Macron. France currently sails through the South China Sea more regularly than any other European nation, although mostly takes a low-key approach on the issue of freedom of navigation. There is already a strong basis for cooperation. France, with UK forces embarked, conducted a major naval exercise in the western Pacific last May, alongside the US and Japan.

A joint Anglo–French patrol would have many advantages. The UK and France are Europe’s two permanent members of the UN Security Council, its only nuclear powers, and the only two European states with truly global interests and expeditionary capabilities. While Germany is increasingly concerned about China’s behaviour, its ambitions are presently far more limited – much of the German Navy is currently confined to port, owing to maintenance problems. Italy and Spain notably sent frigates to Australia separately last year, but an opportunity for coordinated European patrols went begging because of a singular focus on promoting defence exports. British, Italian, and Spanish defence firms are in a three-way competition to win Australia’s pending $35-billion frigate procurement.

Of course, significant commercial motivations are also at play in the decision to dispatch HMS Sutherland. France and Britain compete for defence sales in the region. But this must be weighed against substantial shared strategic interests. Coordinated Anglo–French patrols would further the EU’s goal of European “strategic autonomy” and fit well with Theresa May’s efforts, highlighted in a speech to the Munich Security Conference, to strengthen defence ties with European partners after Brexit.

Joint patrols would be more convincing to a regional audience than a go-it-alone UK FONOP with uncertain prospects of follow-up. While the UK flew Typhoon fighters over the South China Sea on their 2016 Asian deployment, HMS Sutherland is the first British warship to visit the region in nearly five years. A second British warship, HMS Argyll, is scheduled for deployment to the Western Pacific this year. But maintaining a regular British naval presence, east of Suez, is far from assured with only 19 frigates and destroyers.

If the UK is to influence the calculations of China and other actors in the Indo-Pacific region, it requires a sustained and regular presence, not a PR stunt intended for audiences at home. Partnering with France, including in the South China Sea, provides a practical way forward for both states to aggregate limited assets in a distant but strategically important region. Ironically, a key enabler for “global Britain” may lie in firming up cooperation with Paris.

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