UK risks Beijing anger with South China Sea navy mission

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Britain has outlined plans to sail a warship through contested Asian waters next month in a mission aimed at asserting maritime freedom of navigation rights at a time of tension between China and the US.

The naval operation in the South China Sea will be conducted by HMS Sutherland, an anti-submarine frigate that is en route to Australia, Gavin Williamson, UK defence secretary, said on Tuesday during a visit to Sydney. 

“She’ll be sailing through the South China Sea [on the way home] and making it clear our navy has a right to do that,” said Mr Williamson.

Asked about Mr Williamson’s statement, China’s foreign ministry said that there was “no problem of freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea. The situation there is also improving. We hope that non-regional countries can respect the efforts made by regional ones.”

In an interview published in The Australian newspaper, Mr Williamson said it was important for Britain, the US, Australia and other countries to “assert our values” in the South China Sea — a vital trade route and lucrative fishing area that Beijing claims much of as its own territorial waters.

He did not clarify whether HMS Sutherland would sail within 12 nautical miles of disputed territory or artificial islands built by China — an activity practised by US warships that has angered Beijing. But Mr Williamson said Britain “absolutely supported” the US approach on freedom of navigation and its actions in the South China Sea.

“World dynamics are shifting so greatly. The US can only concentrate on so many things at once,’’ said Mr Williamson. “The US is looking for other countries to do more. This is a great opportunity for the UK and Australia to do more, to exercise leadership.” 

The UK operation in the South China Sea follows a US freedom of navigation mission last month within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop that has been the subject of a dispute between China and the Philippines.

Beijing reacted angrily to the US mission, warning the US military not to threaten peace and stability by conducting such operations.

Euan Graham, analyst at Sydney’s Lowy Institute think-tank, said the planned UK operation in the South China Sea followed through with a UK commitment made last year to assert freedom of navigation rights in the region.

“This is not a show of force by the UK and I doubt they will sail within 12 nautical miles of Chinese defence installations on disputed islands in the region,” he said. “Rather it is an opportunity to show the flag, a marker of British sovereignty, which says it isn’t just the US undertaking these operations and upholding the rule of law.” 

Mr Williamson told Australia’s state broadcaster that there was a need for vigilance over “any form of malign intent” from China, as the country seeks to become a superpower.

“Australia [and] Britain see China as a country of great opportunities, but we shouldn’t be blind to the ambition that China has and we’ve got to defend our national security interests,” he said.

Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, noted that while the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allowed for naval ships of one country to pass peacefully through territorial waters of another country, “what Britain thinks of as peaceful, maybe China will not think of as peaceful”.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said the US, Britain and Australia shared a common position on the South China Sea, which contrasted with China’s.

“We can’t take this statement as a formal commitment but if it really happened then it would have a very bad influence on China-Britain relations,” he said. “China might take some retaliatory steps with regards to trade.”

Mr Shi said that so far only the US has performed freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, although there has been debate about whether the Australian navy would also get involved.

Additional reporting by Emily Feng in Beijing

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