Despite what Britain’s Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch said at a recent Heritage Foundation forum, the UK currently has no plans to dispatch two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers it is currently building to the South China Sea by 2020.
Darroch told the Washington-based conservative think tank on December 1 that British fighter aircraft would overfly the South China Sea and his country would send its new aircraft carriers there after being commissioned in 2020.
However, when reached by Asia Times for clarification on the ambassador’s remarks, a British Embassy spokesperson said that “the UK does not conduct Freedom of Navigation operations, although it will continue to exercise its right to navigate through internationally-recognized air ways and international waters as needed.” The spokesperson cited a recent example of “Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter aircraft transiting the East China Sea this fall on their way to and back from Japan, using recognized air ways.”
China claims vast portions of the South China Sea; its territorial demands are challenged by a number of littoral countries in the area and were in large part rejected by an international arbitration court last July – a ruling that, for its part, the Chinese government has always dismissed. Beijing is also at odds with Japan on the sovereignty of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
The British Embassy’s accent on navigation through “internationally-recognized air ways and waters,” rather than on the future launch of “freedom of navigation operations,” ultimately upholds London’s current approach to the maritime contentions across the Pacific Rim.
In essence, Britain will not move away from its principled position on freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, to a less selective and more visible military presence in that vast body of waters.
There is a considerable difference between advancing the principle that territorial controversies in the Western Pacific have to be settled peacefully in accordance with international law, pointing out that sea and air routes in the region have to be kept open, and deploying next generation aircraft carriers in the contested waters.
The first policy is in fact relatively “manageable” by London, as it does not expose it to dramatic Chinese recriminations, while the second one would inevitably end up irking Beijing.
The Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are the largest warships ever built for the British Royal Navy. With their fleet of F-35B Lightning II multi-role combat aircraft, they should provide Britain with a carrier strike capability second only to the US from 2020. Their stationing in the South China Sea would not be of marginal importance to the regional balance of power.
However, the prospect of London not joining America and Japan in freedom of navigation and overfly missions in the East and South China Seas should placate China.
Earlier, Beijing’s expected response to Darroch’s remarks had come in a December 2 commentary from the official Xinhua news agency which stressed that it was not in London’s interests to meddle in the East and South China Seas, as it would jeopardize the UK’s blossoming economic relations with Beijing.
This served as an early warning for British leaders, who dealing with chaos caused by Brexit, the country’s exit from the European Union, and the consequent quest for a new international role. The foreign policy mantra in London is now “Global Britain,” which aims to boost the nation’s overseas projection and engagement, not least in economic and trade terms.
One of the pillars of this geopolitical re-positioning is Britain’s overtures to China, dubbed as the new “golden era” in relations between the two countries. It hinges on the massive influx of Chinese investments into the British Isles, like the participation of the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Company in the development of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.
Between 2005 and 2015, China’s foreign direct investment in Britain was worth US$34.3 billion, making the UK the largest recipient in Europe. However, in 2016, Britain has slipped to fourth at US$3.8 billion, behind Finland, Germany and France, according to China Global Investment Tracker.
In the context of Brexit, Britain is eager to draw more capital from China, particularly to fund infrastructure projects in its northern region. But, given China’s marked unwillingness to compromise when its core national interests are at stake, and its attitude to lash out at anyone who crosses its red lines on territorial sovereignty, Britain will probably have to refrain from transposing the military dimension of its special relationship with Washington to the South and East China Seas if it wants Chinese money to keep flowing across the Channel.