A Royal Marine boarding team is seen in front of the HMS Argyll, which has been involved in freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea plus naval exercises with allies such as the US, Australia and Japan, who share its concerns about Beijing claiming the South China Sea as its territorial waters. Photo: AFP / Ministry of Defence

Chinese has long historical memories of British men-of-war in the South China Seas, dating back to the humiliations of the Opium Wars. But while Beijing warns London not to get engaged in the area’s complex maritime disputes, it  may be getting worked up over nothing: the United Kingdom’s defense budget for 2019 appears insufficient to ensure a continuous presence by the Royal Navy in global commons.

On Monday, British finance minister Philip Hammond pledged an extra US$1.3 billion for the country’s new nuclear submarine program and the modernization of its anti-submarine warfare and offensive cyber capabilities.

However, many British leaders believe this is not nearly enough for Britannia to rule the waves. According to a recent report by the House of Commons Defense Committee, the UK needs a $25.5 billion increase in military funding to address present and future challenges. This means it is doubtful that Britain’s bellicose words about its naval deployment in the South China Sea will be matched with deeds.

More UK warships in the South China Sea

Admiral Philip Jones, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, told the Financial Times last week that the British government would send more warships through the region to promote freedom of navigation. Britain is too puny to challenge China in East Asia, but the Royal Navy could give additional punch to a potential anti-China combination of Indo-Pacific forces led by the United States.

Jones’ remarks provoked a harsh response from Beijing. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on October 24 that the recent “trespassing” of a British warship into China’s territorial waters off the Xisha Islands, otherwise known as the Paracel Islands, had already damaged relations between the two countries.

The Paracels, as well as the Spratly Islands, are claimed by both China and a number of Southeast Asian nations. The Chinese want Britain to stop provocative moves in the area.

On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last September Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi bluntly told his British counterpart Jeremy Hunt that UK naval operations could undermine mutual trust. The Chinese envoy urged London to respect China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity and refrain from taking sides in controversies regarding the South China Sea.

UK leaders might be tempted to think that China, faced with a growing trade war with the US, will limit its reaction to the Royal Navy’s presence in East Asia to symbolic rebukes, and that bilateral relations between the two countries will not be compromised. Britain wants stronger commercial ties with Beijing to mitigate the impact of its exit from the European Union.

Admiral Jones told the Financial Times that the UK would back allies in the area and resist Chinese violations of generally accepted maritime laws. Lieutenant General Patrick Sanders, Britain’s army commander, expressed in a more veiled way the same concept while on a visit to Japan in early October.

Sanders, who was attending the first-ever joint military exercises on Japanese soil between British troops and local ground forces, stressed that “stability in Asia is essential to stability around the world and the UK is opposed to any change in the status quo by force.” Moreover, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson has several times argued that China’s militarization of natural and artificial features in the South China Sea went against international rules.

Unbroken naval presence in the Indo-Pacific

The UK government insists it wants an “unbroken” naval presence in the Indo-Pacific area. The Royal Navy’s deployment in Southeast and East Asia is formally aimed at safeguarding strategic shipping routes vital to commerce. Britain is a trade-focused nation, and British strategists are concerned that China could interdict marine traffic through the South China Sea waterways.

Three UK warships have sailed across the Indian Ocean and Pacific waters this year. HMS Argyll, an anti-submarine frigate, is currently the only vessel in service in the vast region. It joined navies from Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand in Exercise Bersama Lima in the South China Sea until October 19. These Indo-Pacific countries cooperate with Britain under the Five Power Defence Agreement and have often voiced concern about China’s growing military clout.

In a demonstration of its firepower, HMS Argyll tested the new Sea Ceptor missile system during the Bersama Lima exercises. The US$1.1 billion arm platform has been operational since May, and is viewed by the Royal Navy as a powerful antidote to airborne threats, including enemy combat jets, helicopters and projectiles.

Combining forces with allies

HMS Argyll will hold maritime drills with the Japanese navy later in the year. Its successor, the future Type 26 frigate, should become a key asset of a permanent carrier strike group, and the British government plans to deploy one of its two new aircraft carriers east of Suez in the 2020s.

But even with the launch of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the British Navy might not be able to face both Russia’s resurgent threat in North Atlantic and China’s naval presence in the Indo-Pacific. With a shrinking defense budget and a decline in active personnel, Britain’s once might navy can now only deploy 10 submarines and 70 vessels. It will have more modern warships in the coming years, but quantitatively the fleet will remain at current levels.

Britain cannot worry China militarily unless it acts in sync with other like-minded countries. In this respect, it is deepening naval cooperation not only with the US, but also with France, Australia, India and Japan to foster free and secure access to oceans and seas in the face of China’s rapid naval expansion.

During his recent trip to Japan, Lt. General Sanders pointed out that “no nation operates alone and we want to assure Japan that they will not have to fight alone either.” The future role of the Royal Navy in the Indo-Pacific arena could indeed be that of a “support force” for front line regional navies that are more fully committed to countering China.

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