The Royal Navy and US Navy held joint exercises in the South China Sea last week, for the first time since China began building new military bases in those waters. The exercises sent a message to Beijing that it faces an evolving united front of nations committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in some of the world’s most vital waterways. The frigate HMS Argyll joined the USS McCampbell, a guided-missile destroyer, for nearly a week of drills and operations. This comes just a few months after HMS Albion conducted the Royal Navy’s first freedom of navigation operation last August near the contested Paracel Islands, drawing a sharp response from China.
London has repeatedly stated that the United Kingdom will increase its activities in Asian waters, in large measure as a response to the threat posed by China’s growing strength and militarisation of man-made islands in the region. Then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced in 2017 that the UK’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will steam through the South China Sea on its maiden voyage in 2021, conducting drills with the Japanese and South Korean navies. And last December, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson revealed plans to place a British military base back in eastern Asia, possibly in Singapore or Brunei, in order to have a more permanent presence in the western Pacific as Britain rethinks its foreign policy after Brexit. Taken together, these steps portend a partial reversal of the 1968 ‘East of Suez’ policy of withdrawing British forces from the from the Indo-Pacific region, which reached its apotheosis with the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.
Some might wonder why London would risk Beijing’s ire and get involved in waters far from its core national interests. It was only a year ago that Theresa May declared a new ‘golden era’ in Sino-British relations, and just two years since the first Chinese freight train arrived in London to great fanfare. With the approval for construction of the Chinese-backed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in 2016, May’s government seemed on a course to get ever closer to China. This was despite growing concerns in other nations that doing business with China held increasingly unacceptable risks, from intimidation to debt traps to pervasive cyberattacks.
Britain’s security interests, however, have hewed a more realistic course, and London has incurred Beijing’s displeasure as it has stepped up its activities in Asia. As an island trading nation, the UK may well be more sensitive to the potential threats to freedom of navigation from an assertive Chinese military than Europe’s continental powers. Even in its current reduced state, the Royal Navy remains one of the few navies able to conduct blue water operations and project force far from its borders. Teaming up British ships with the US Navy sends a strong signal that Beijing is increasingly alienating the world’s more powerful nations. It is also a significant boon to Asian nations who have felt trapped between America and China; the more that a community of maritime interests develops in Asia, the more that smaller nations will feel they are able to resist Beijing’s demands over territorial issues and blandishments which pull them to China’s side.
Nor should the Royal Navy’s fighting abilities be discounted; it may be smaller than the Japanese Self-Defence Maritime Force, and much smaller than the Chinese Navy, but it also has been operating alongside American forces for much of the past two decades in combat operations, giving it far more experience than its Chinese counterparts. Perhaps that is why the Chinese government lambasted Britain for ‘provocative actions’ after the Albion conducted her freedom of navigation operation last August.
Extending Anglo-American defence cooperation to the Indo-Pacific could be a huge boost to the on-going naval partnership between America, Australia, Japan, and India. Bringing in a leading liberal nation to this relationship would bolster the idea that democratic nations do indeed have to work together to protect their shared national interests. Given its global trading and diplomatic roles, London is making the right choice in demanding that the region remain stable. Since Asia is likely the key arena of geopolitics over the next generation, the more that Britain commits to playing a role and helping shape a common response to challenges and threats there, the more its ‘global Britain’ strategy will be believed and respected.