A worker walks past a section of the 65,000-ton British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, under construction in Rosyth Dockyard in Scotland, on May 24, 2016. Photo: AFP  / Robert Perry
A worker walks past a section of the 65,000-ton British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, under construction in Rosyth Dockyard in Scotland, on May 24, 2016. Photo: AFP / Robert Perry

British leaders continue to send mixed signals on the disputed South China Sea, one of the busiest trade routes in the world. Many believe the appearance of Britain’s warships in the region will likely set off a punitive response from China, the major contender in the territorial row.

London could rein in Beijing’s ire if this scenario were to emerge, however, provided its possible future naval activism in East Asia is limited in scope and ambition and matched by precautionary measures.

Freedom-of-navigation operations

On Thursday, while on a visit to Australia, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said his government was considering deploying a warship in the South China Sea to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations in 2018. To reinforce the message, he added that Britain’s naval activities in the area would not be “constrained” by China.

The same day, after talks with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced that the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) would be sent to the South China Sea once operational in 2020. In Johnson’s words, they will be dispatched to foster a rules-based regional order in East Asia.

Last December, during an event at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, made similar remarks. He said Britain planned to dispatch its future aircraft carriers to the South China Sea by 2020. At the time, however, the British Embassy tried to “adjust” Darroch’s words. It told Asia Times that while the Royal Navy did not exercise freedom-of-navigation operations in the area, British vessels would continue to sail through international waters as needed.

Fallon ultimately fine-tuned his wording as well. The British defense minister said on Friday that the new aircraft carriers were years away from commissioning and no specific deployment had been mapped out yet, adding that London expected to see its naval vessels “sail the seven seas”, including the Pacific Ocean if Britain’s maritime trade were threatened in that part of the world.

Despite official retractions, Britain has stepped up its military presence in East Asia over the past year. The Royal Navy recently contributed to the French-led “Jeanne d’Arc” naval task force, engaged in training and freedom-of-navigation missions in the Indo-Pacific region, after British Typhoon multi-role fighters had flown through the South China Sea last October on their way to and back from Japan.

Sino-British ‘golden era’ at risk

As expected, Beijing promptly reacted to Fallon’s and Johnson’s comments. On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said naval operations in the South China Sea by non-regional actors would interfere with current attempts by China and its neighbors to stabilize the region. As well, he made clear that good Sino-British relations would be impossible “without joint efforts of both sides”.

Beijing claims vast portions of the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam are other claimants to territory in the region. Over the past three years, the United States has constantly challenged Beijing’s militarization of the area. Indeed, Washington has often supported the demands of China’s neighbors and routinely conducted freedom-of-navigations operations in the disputed waters to counter Chinese military assertiveness.

A British naval presence in the South China Sea would certainly be welcomed by the US, but the deployment of warships in East Asia would put Britain’s trade and investment cooperation with Beijing at risk.

Ushered in by then British prime minister David Cameron in 2015, and continued by his successor Theresa May, the Sino-British “golden era” of relationships is now viewed in London as a hedge against possible negative effects of Brexit, Britain’s bid to exit the European Union. Suffice to say that despite Beijing’s tight rein on capital outflows, Chinese investment in Britain was worth US$11.1 billion in 2016 and $2.8 billion in the first half of 2017, according to the China Global Investment Tracker.

France’s regular naval presence in the hotly contested South China Sea proves that even an “external force” could find a mutually acceptable modus vivendi with China in the region. The French Navy has conducted many freedom-of-navigation exercises in this body of water. Nonetheless, relations between Paris and Beijing have remained relatively friendly.

Britain should take note of this and explore options to reduce the impact of possible military engagement in East Asia on relations with China. The Royal Navy could be sent to parts of the South China Sea that are not claimed by Beijing, for instance. It could also coordinate actions with the French Navy so as to spread the risk of potential Chinese retaliations.

In contrast, tensions will be inevitable if British warships join the US Navy in operations around atolls and reefs controlled by China, though this prospect could appear more rational for the Royal Navy in strict military terms.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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