Britain’s Strategic Interest in South China Sea


DATE: 30TH JANUARY, 6.00-7.00 PM





ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Good evening ladies and gentleman. Thank you so much for being with us this evening and for me it is a great pleasure and honour to be chairing this paper launch by the Henry Jackson Society. So you know who I am my name is Ross Thompson, I am a Member of Parliament representing Aberdeen South constituency and a fairly new Member of Parliament having only come in at the last snap General Election in 2017. Having a real, genuine interest in what Britain’s role is in the world and foreign affairs, having the pleasure of meeting people here on this panel who represent the Henry Jackson Society. It’s been of great delight that I can get more involved with the society, very keen to help in any way that I can because the work that is done here is so, so important and before I introduce you to the panel, a very esteemed panel, so lucky tonight to have such big brains around about us, there’s not many of those in Parliament so to have some people of this quality is fantastic.

But why are we here? It’s because the UK is reinventing its relationship with the rest of the world as we leave the European Union. There are huge opportunities and challenges but it’s time that the UK can open its eyes to the rest of the world and the key role it’s got to play in shaping it. As you know that the UK has been a real champion of the rules based international system that we have, it’s something that is precious to us, something that not everyone respects and we have a really important role in ensuring that its integrity is maintained. And part of that means raising our profile in Indo-Pacific region for a number of reasons; the South China Sea is absolutely critical for the known Royal route which is one of those most important communication and trading lines into that region and we have seen more and more aggression from China with retrospective claims both in terms of territory and jurisdiction. And in late August last year we saw stories emerging in the media about confrontation between the Royal Navy and the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea and it was at that time it was rumoured that HMS Albion, which is an amphibious assault ship, had challenged some of the unlawful or excessive Chinese maritime claim in that region and then it later emerged the Royal Navy had actually asserted freedom of navigation in international waters between the Paracel Islands making the UK the only country, rather than another than the US, confirmed to have undertaken that. Now questions obviously began to emerge about what exactly is it that China is doing in the South China Sea and why is it and that is why we have the support in front of us tonight which I hope has explained not only what the issues are in that region, perspectives and why we see this aggression from China but also what the UK can do as Global Britain to help address the issues there and we have different perspectives explained tonight so I’m really, really looking forward to hearing from our panel.

And with us this evening we have Dr John Hemmings, now John is a Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society and an Adjunct Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Relations. Prior to his doctoral studies he was a visiting fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall working on Northeast Asia security and defence policies. Now he contributes political analysis to various media, including our own BBC, the Telegraph, as exotic as Fox News and CNN, as well as the Mainichi Shimbun, and the Diplomat and the National Interest, and is a regular, if you don’t listen to him already, a regular on Monocle 24 Radio. To my far left is James Rogers who is the Director of the Global Britain Program at the Henry Jackson Society of which he is a founding member. Formerly, he held a number of positions at the Baltic Defence College in Estonia and has worked at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. And sitting here to my right is Dr Bill Hayton was appointed an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House in 2015 and has worked as a journalist with BBC News since 1998.He was the BBC’s reporter in Vietnam in 2006/7 and spent a year seconded to the state broadcaster in Myanmar in 2013/14 working on media development. Now he focuses on the South China Sea disputes and current affairs in Southeast Asia. He has briefed government departments, officials and companies here in the UK, the USA, Europe and Asia and written for numerous media outlets on these subjects. He is a graduate of the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. So we have a fantastic panel here, a terrific report in front of you. We will have the opportunity after the discussion for you to ask questions, probing questions I am sure and I hope that we will have a really enjoyable and interesting evening. So thank you very much and it is my pleasure to first of all hand you over to John. Thank you.”

DR JOHN HEMMINGS: “Thank you very much Ross and a very big thank you to Bill Hayton also for coming along and to kind of grill us and keep us, you know, honest in terms of the technical side of what we have attempted here. So what have we attempted here? Just another South China Sea paper? No, we’ve really tried to look at the South China Sea from a British perspective. I don’t think there’s a lot of papers out there that do that and so what we attempted to do is answer two or three questions that seemed to come up a lot in discussions around that summer period when the Albion was making it transit. And I think the fundamental question, of course, particularly because there is risk involved in the UK transiting the ocean and challenging these jurisdictional and territorial claims is ‘why is Britain there? What’s the interest so far away?’ And of course the, I’ll start with a kind of economic argument and I’ll move over to geo-strategic and geo-economic arguments and I think then my colleague James will go into further into what exactly occurred with the tactical level.

So first of all, you know, the South China Sea is very important to Britain. It’s deeply already part of our trade system. 12% of British trade goes through there. 97 billion. Just to put that in perspective, UK-India total trade is only 19 billion so it’s a significant chunk of our total trade revenues. Why else would we care in terms of global Britain and thinking about Asia? Are we just running from Brexit and the continent? No, not at all actually, I think particularly people like myself we’ve been watching the world turn to Asia, as Asia grows, as it became the large centre of the global GDP we saw the US under the Obama administration commit to its pivot. Now it had geo-strategic reasons of course but remember they also very strong economic reasons for the United States to engage in that architecture building that was occurring on things like TPP. So Britain has also a role in that, we think that Britain not only has the capability but also the interest in taking part in those conversations. As we already know Theresa May has in fact indicated our interest in joining the new TPP, the CPTPP, it’s one of those ones, and while he was here earlier this month Prime Minister, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed very strong support for Britain to go through that. Now of course that doesn’t mean we go in, there’s lots of different doorsteps along the way. But there’s a kind of a significant historic effect is taking place and Britain should be a part of that. I’ll give you a few little bits and pieces I picked out in an earlier report that feed into this report as well and they’re quite stunning. Maritime shipping already 90% of global trade is set to increase. The global middle class, in other words some of the largest consumers, is set to increase by 50% with about 88% of that in Asia. In other words India, the Indian Ocean, the South East Asian littoral, there’s going to be cities on a level that I don’t think we quite grasp, cities springing up along that trade route with new consumers who wish to buy energy from the Middle East, manufactured in advanced technology products from the UK and also it’s a good thing to be doing. Now this report does not walk away from Europe, we’re not saying that’s the intention of this report nor are we saying that Russia and neo-strategic concerns are not of deep importance. Our fundamental argument is not about ranking, it’s simply about that common refrain like ‘what are you doing there? It’s so far away’, so please bear that in mind. No one has said that Russia is less important than the South China Sea which is often refrained I think we hear when we discuss the South China Sea and Britain.

So that’s number one, the economic case, I think, it’s a fairly sound one. The Asia Development Bank also predicted that global GDP would be about 52% in Asia, particularly amongst the 7 largest economies by 2050. So it’s not, and it’s also going to be the fastest growing economies so not only will it be centre of economic activity, it will also be the engine of economic growth. Britain should be in there, we’re a trading nation, we’ve had a long history of being a Mahanian power and I see no reason not to engage with that seismic, historic shift. So what’s the geo-strategic argument for us being involved there? Well we’re not just going to trade that’s for sure and this paper does not simply, it is not a trade paper, it’s absolutely a geo-strategic paper, the HMS Albion was not simply there to represent British goods. What is also happening in the region which is fascinating but also deeply disturbing is that as powers have risen, particularly the PRC but I can’t say that the only ones, they’ve begun to reorient the global system. Now this is fine, the global system and the rules that were made up were mostly made up by Western powers in the post-war period and there’s definitely a logic behind reordering and evolving. However, it shouldn’t be done though military coercion, that’s the main difference in how we view what’s taking place with island building in the South China Sea. This is not a summit or a conference or a big meeting where China has tried to push across its perspectives and won the argument through rational purpose. This is a situation which a country has fundamentally taken control of a trade route that consists of 1/3 of global trade by force and really because we all have very deeply complex trade relations with China we’ve tried to call them on it as gentle and diplomatic and strong manner as possible but even the US, which is also deeply committed economically to the China relationship although I admit less and less so these days, has also had real trouble in trying to encourage the Chinese to respect the system that was actually agreed when they were in the room. UNCLOS was not a thing that was created in a post-war period, it was in the 80s and the People’s Republic of China was in the room when it was signed. They signed it, they ratified it so one of the other arguments that we’ve often heard is that they’re changing a kind of Western thing. That’s not the case at all, they were very much in the room, they of course did add codicil’s to the ratification saying this would all be within Chinese law and I think as they grown more powerful so they’ve transposed their own national interest and decided to use a form of law-fare using law to gain national interest in a hybrid type of way.

I think the main thing that’s been of deepest concern is that they’ve essentially, and I can see it from people who are in this room, nearly every multilateral form that’s attempted to approach this issue with them has been rebuffed. So ASEAN has been rebuffed although you could say delayed through the code of conduct diplomacy and they’ve not allowed any other form to discuss it so in some ways what we argue ‘what is Britain doing?’, Britain is essentially trying to, in I think it’s not a very modest way but certainly a little bit modest, is to defend one of the primary pillars of the rules based system and that’s the ability for everyone to share the sea lanes, that those are global commons. This isn’t about protecting US hegemony, this isn’t about an American order, it’s about protecting an order which was essentially created for everyone to use and the danger is that those islands equipped with anti-ship missile systems they become what we call anti-access area denial bubbles which might in some future contingency be used to China’s national interest which are very narrow and very different from the rest of us. I think I’ve set up a kind of framework for geo-economic and geo-strategic, I’ll leave it there and turn over to my colleague and co-author, James, who we’ve worked together on this and hope that he’ll punch through some of the finer details that I’ve left out.”

JAMES ROGERS: “OK, well thank you John. Now I’ll try to encapsulate very briefly so there’s plenty of time for questions because no doubt there will be plenty of them. The UK’s additional interests in the South China Sea and why the South China Sea matters to the concept or the idea, more even you might say the ambition of a Global Britain.

So John has identified a number of strategic interests that the UK has more broadly in the global system and the way in which the PRC, as well as other countries, are seeking to disrupt that and how that is manifesting itself in this key strategic waterway. Now, the thing I want to point out at the beginning is that Britain’s focus on this region and its increasing focus I would say on this region is nothing to do with the past. An old chestnut or an old argument is often asserted that this is all about a return to empire or a return to history or a return to some kind of golden age that Britain once had, but the world has moved forward. But this actually isn’t true, this is the centre and it’s becoming the centre increasingly of global economic and strategic intercourse and wider interests of the major powers. So this region, and its central to the Indo-Pacific because it’s between both the Indian and the Pacific oceans, is the future, it’s not the past so that’s a really important point to make out.

Now the important thing is that because of Britain’s historical legacy in part, the UK has interests there that it has established and maintained over the last few decades and indeed going all the way back into the 19th Century. Now there was some discussion a few years ago rightly about Britain’s so called return east of Suez but it’s often forgotten Britain has always had a focus east of Suez, it has maintained the kind of strategic array of various focus points that connect. Cyprus all the way down to the Middle East, across to Diego Garcia and then all the way across to military facilities or logistical facilities in South East Asia where of course it has interests and commitments through the Five Power Defence arrangements. Now militarily the UK has deep relationships with the United States and with again the Five Power Defence arrangements and it is broadening those to incorporate also countries such as Japan and a broader portfolio of partners in the region. And on top of that the UK’s interest is of course in international law and I think this is the one thing where the idea of Global Britain reaches a kind of apex because it is where international law and the so called rules based international order and the concept of Global Britain come together in a fusion. And I think to my mind this was brought to its true apex back on 16th of August 2017 when the Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her vision on board the new British super carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, for how this idea of Global Britain and the navy would intercept with one another. And I just wanted to read out a few words that she said, because I think this in no small way, draws together what Global Britain is and why it matters to the region and in turn why the region, the South China Sea and South East Asia, more broadly matters to the idea of Global Britain and the UK more broadly. So as she said, ‘Britain can be proud of this ship and what it represents. It sends a clear signal that as Britain forges a new positive, confident role for ourselves on the world stage in the years ahead, we are determined to remain a fully engaged global power working closely with our friends and allies around the world. As a leading member of NATO, the foremost military power in Europe and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Britain has an enduring responsibility to help sustain the international rules-based order, and to defend the liberal values which underpin it’. So the idea being that this last new warship and what it will represent is step changing capability for the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom, and of course our allies and partners, is in no small way a kind of manifestation of Britain’s willingness to underpin and protect this rules based order which everyone benefits from, not only the other major powers but also many of the smaller states that if the rules based order did not exist or if it fell would be shoved around as we have seen so many times unfortunately in the past. So this I think draws together in a kind of broader array of what Global Britain is and how it can manifest itself on the strategic plain and therefore why the South China Sea matters to the UK and why in turn the UK is going to matter to what happens in the South China Sea.

So Ross very helpfully gave a good introduction as to the transit of the movements of the HMS Albion on the 31st of August last year. Now there were a number of media reports that came out some days later which seemed somewhat confused because I would say perhaps the lack of transparency about the ship’s mission and exactly what it did and where it went. In relation to the United States, which seems to be more transparent, the British government did not release what exactly the ship did and it wasn’t, I think, until two months later at a IISS conference that it was actually outlined with some clarity what this ship actually did which is to penetrate the straight baselines and challenge China’s unlawful claims in relation to the Paracel Islands. So what is this all about? Well I would say that it is about exerting a kind of dissuasive influence and basically to prevent bad things from happening and to prevent the idea breaking out in other capitals, particularly those who might wish to revise the rules based order, that they can get away with revising the rules through use of force either explicitly or indeed implicitly. So in that sense this is about supporting ultimately the rules based system and protecting a type of order that benefits everyone and to no small extent benefits everyone equally.

So what are the options then for Global Britain in relation to the South China Sea? Well they are broad and there are many of them. Now one simple option would be to do nothing more, to simply say this is a long way away and some people would make this argument and Britain has no real interest there, we should leave it to someone else to deal with it. The Americans, the Japanese, the Vietnamese, the Australians, whoever, whoever. But I would argue that this is a strategic and economic mistake for some of the reasons John, my colleague, has outlined and also because to some extent based on what happened in August last year, the UK has already exerted or asserted itself in the reason. So the other option would be to continue along the same lines as presently, to undertake future operations or future missions within the South China Sea but nevertheless there would be some degree of public confusion, perhaps a lack of transparency and it’s not entirely clear what the impact would be on our regional allies and partners, as well as the PRC. So the third option is bolder but I would argue would allow us to move into the region more coherently and more transparently and also support our ally, the United States, as well as European security more broadly and of course ultimately support the rules based order and all of the interests of the states in the region. And that is to establish something akin to a kind of freedom of navigation policy and we have basically outlined two types of movements or manoeuvers that could be initiated through this kind of policy. One would be freedom of navigation movements and as I say where a Royal Navy vessel would cruise into the territorial or contiguous waters claimed by the PRC and passing directly as if undertaking innocent passage but without giving advanced notice, this is one of things that the PRC demands to travel through territorial waters that it claims. The other option would be even bolder still and that would be something akin to freedom of navigation exercises and these would involve a Royal Navy vessel cruising into territorial or contiguous waters claimed by them PRC in a way not befitting of any of the innocent passage and without giving advance notice, such as launching a helicopter and/or conducting drills such as man overboard exercises. Now each type of these manoeuvers would have to carefully calibrated in relation to the foreign claim, particularly those of the PRC. So, for example, where the PRC mounts excessive claims, for example where it seeks advanced permission to travel, a ‘FON MOV’ or a freedom of navigation movement might suffice. But where there are unlawful claims such as where straight baseline shave been asserted or where fake islands have been built on low tide elevations, such as Mischief Reef, Subi Reef or Fiery Cross Reef, the UK might opt to undertake freedom of navigation exercise. Now of course these freedom of navigation exercises would be more risky, we run the risk of both horizontal and even potentially vertical escalation on part of the PRC, so the UK could undertake them unilaterally in the way that it did on the 31st of August or it could also undertake multilaterally or bilaterally through so called ship rider programs where foreign assets or allied assets are on British ships or where British assets are on allied ships or even the UK could undertake multilaterally alongside other nations warships, particularly those that might have interest in supporting the UK and the US and other countries in supporting the rules based international system. So that’s one thing the UK could do and that would in some ways build on what we have already been doing and already have started to do and take it forward into the future. As I say they would have to be carefully calibrated to each of the particular claims that the PRC and potentially other countries make in relation to these various rocks, low tide elevations and fake islands.

Now in addition to that, we think that the UK needs to show that it is really committed to the region. Now we’ve already heard the government make announcements that there will be a greater forward presence of Royal Navy assets in the future, as well as potentially new facilities established in South East Asia in conjunction with the wishes of the countries in the region and potentially we think there could be opportunities for new political and alliance formations to develop that the UK would be part of or indeed would even propose to create with other countries that are interested in the region. And finally we think that there might be key role for the new super carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, as well as foreign assets that might be affiliated to it, in 2021 or thereafter to make a cruise through the region either part of the first operation tour or subsequent tours with a broader array of allied partner assets to show the UK is committed to the region and to the rules based order in the way that the Prime Minister outlined two years ago. We think that rather than inviting escalation on the part of the PRC and other countries this would actually dissuade such escalation, particularly if other countries were drawn into the project and a broader framework would develop to uphold the rules based order. The final thing I would like to say is that this will require, I think, more ships for the Royal Navy, as well as higher defence spending, and I think the Defence Select Committee very accurately pointed out last year that defence spending would probably need to increase in the years ahead something between 2.5-3% of GDP to allow the UK to take these kinds of new focuses in the wider world as it becomes more unstable and as we move into the future.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Fantastic, thank you so much to John and to James, I’m going to pass over now to Bill. We’ve heard from our two report authors now about the growing tensions in the regions that increase military activity which we’ve been told poses a danger to the rules based international system and that from what we’ve heard the UK should have a greater role in challenging those that want to undermine the rules. What’s your perspective on the report and what we’ve heard from John and James?”

DR BILL HAYTON: “Thank you very much. Since you mentioned that I work for the BBC and I have to say that I am not working for the BBC this evening, I’m here in a Chatham House capacity. The BBC takes no position (inaudible). I’m really pleased that the report has been published, that John and James put so much effort into it. We really do need a full discussion about our interests in Asia with South East Asia in particular and what the UK can do and should do.

I think this has to be more than simply a military approach but trade follows the flag and if the military get involved then we hope that diplomats and business people and everybody else would take more notice as well. It’s a thought exercise, imagine you have a country of more than a billion people, possesses nuclear weapons, an aircraft carrier has various maritime disputes with the West but we don’t worry about India, do we? In that sort of true of India, it’s also true of China. Why do we worry about China more? I would argue it’s because of the nature of the Chinese regime, a Leninist regime, one that’s opaque, one that’s not democratic. Now given that the Leninist People’s Republic of China is going to be around for some time I would predict, our hopes shouldn’t be put into regime change but really into trying to shape China’s behaviour in its near seas. The regime clearly has, the PRC clearly has a revisionist attitude towards the law of sea driven by a combination of nationalism and some very bad use of historical evidence. Now the UK’s interest, I would argue, are threatened by this revisionist attitude in several ways. An attempt to change the law of the sea de facto in effect, to close off certain parts of the sea to foreign vessels and I would argue that if the law of the sea collapses in one place then we’ll see it collapse in other places as well. So for example we see Russia make moves against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov, which in some ways parallel what China has been doing in the South China Sea. We have interesting maritime connectivity as we have been hearing in terms of the volume of trade that goes via sea, vastly more than any other form of transport. Do we want to see an East and South East Asia that is dominated by China? No we don’t but there are three Commonwealth states there to whom we have defence commitments at the very least and there are plenty other East and South East Asian governments that have no desire to become captive markets or part or swallowed into a Chinese dominated sphere of influence. We have our own (inaudible) and we want to trade there and our prosperity depends on the free flow of goods and free government that are able to make free decisions about who their trading partners are.

So the report talks about how China’s actions in the South China Sea have a potential to undermine all of these interests and in particular the phrase ‘unlawful claims’. Let’s have good little look drilling down into what these unlawful claims are. Now as we have heard China took part in the negotiations for UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, those negotiations lasted 9 years, it was 1973 to 1982. China was a full part, People’s Republic of China was a full part of those negotiations. This is not an unfair, unequal, colonial treaty. Every single government that took part had an equal vote and an equal say in the proceedings. And China has ratified UNCLOS, we had the situation where the United States signed UNCLOS but not ratified it so we have one state which has not ratified UNCLOS but lives by its prescriptions and we have China that has ratified it but does not live by its prescriptions, this is the irony. So China’s unlawful claims in the words of the report are really about the spaces in between the islands in the South China Sea. We’re not talking about who’s the rightful owner of the Paracel’s and the Spratly’s, we’re talking about what happens in the spaces in between in the sea. Now China’s claims are, some are clear and some are vague. So an example of a clear one; in 1996 China drew straight baselines around the Paracel Islands and basically said ‘here’s a group of islands, we’re going to draw a straight line in the sea and everything inside this straight line belongs to us’. Now that’s entirely illegal in UNCLOS and this is why HMS Albion sailed through the Paracel Islands middle of last year. Not to go into territorial waters of any of these particular islands but to sail right through the middle more than 12 nautical miles and say ‘we don’t recognise this as your sea, you can’t just draw a line and cut this bit of sea off to the rest of the world. Some Chinese claims are much more vague than that. So for example the big one, of course, is that China drew this, a Chinese mapmaker in 1947, put some dashes in the sea, the U-shaped line and a very vague claim at the time, I would argue that it only ever meant a claim to islands but since then a Taiwanese academic invented a claim that somehow this line represented some historic waters that belonged to China. If anybody is interested, I have written a little paper about how this single Taiwanese academic created the world’s most dangerous problems in 1982, sorry late (inaudible). If there’s such a thing as a Nobel Anti-Peace Prize I would award it to this gentleman. And China is now basically taking this and saying ‘well we have historic rights within this line which somehow are greater than the treaty that we ratified in 1996 and therefore we demand half your oil, half of your fish and the rights to do what we want in those parts of the sea’. Now this is a very clear threat to the countries of South East Asia and you’ve seen, for example, oil production Vietnam going down, problems in Malaysia, Brunei, this is all because and Philippines, Philippines is going lose 20% of its electricity supply in the next 5 or 6 years because China won’t let it develop the gas reserves on the (inaudible) within its Exclusive Economic Zone. A UK partner losing 20% of its electricity supply because of the actions of China.

The other vague thing is to do with whether certain features are entitled to certain territorial claims around them. So to put it short, if a rock sticks out of the sea at high tide it gets a 12 nautical mile territorial sea around it, like Rockall for example. If it’s below water at high tide, it doesn’t. It only gets a 500 metre zone. So what are the things about freedom of navigation operations that the Americans have been doing is they’ve been turning around and saying ‘OK, we think this feature which you’ve built a base, it’s not naturally above water at high tide so therefore it’s not entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea so therefore we are not going to make an innocent passage, we are going to sail through this and we are going to do something which is not innocent. We are going to launch a helicopter, potentially we could do gunnery exercises if we wanted to’, although they haven’t done that, they could do a man overboard drill or whatever. So actually what they’re saying is ‘we do not recognise that this feature has a territorial sea’ but they’re deliberately sailing 12 nautical miles in order to make that point. Now my question really is imagine we were doing a British, a Royal Navy ship was doing the same thing and somebody died. Wouldn’t have to be a result of a collision or confrontation, you know a sailor could fall overboard, whatever, and die. Are we really going to have a Defence Secretary stand up in here and say ‘the reason this person died was because we were arguing about whether Gaven Reef North was above water at high tide or below water at high tide’, yeah? Is that really why you think that Britain, the Royal Navy, should be in the South China Sea? Arguing the toss about Gaven Reef North. I think there are much bigger fish to fry frankly. British company Shell wants to develop the Reed Bank and provide gas for the Philippines to develop electricity but a British company called Forum, mainly a Philippines company but at least listed in the UK, had to delist from the stock exchange because of Chinese pressure. Spanish company Repsol has been prevented from developing offshore oil and gas reserves off Vietnam. Fish stocks across the region are being smashed to pieces because of Chinese poaching in other countries Exclusive Economic Zones.

I think these are the issues that Britain needs to be defending, this is where the push back needs to come. If we do a FONOP, we sail through and we go away again, it’s putting your feet in a bucket of water and taking it out. It’s an important statement but it doesn’t stop the creeping annexation. I think Britain needs to empower states in South East Asia to defend their own Exclusive Economic Zones. So when the Philippines sends a coastguard vessel out to protect an oil rig or fishery protection vessel, our ship is there watching to make sure the Chinese don’t do something. That’s what I think, that’s a justifiable risk. You can justify it in terms of global fish stocks, you can justify it in terms of energy conservation and so forth. I think that’s a more important battle to fight than whether or not a rock is above or below water at high tide. I think in order to do that, the UK is going to need to work with allies, in particular the United States but also Australia, New Zealand, Canada, other like-minded countries and also the Europeans. The Dutch have already said, for example, that they’re going to send a ship alongside the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carries when it sails to the Asia-Pacific region in the next year or the year after. Perhaps the French will come too, perhaps we can persuade some other Europeans to do so. I think we also need to think about reciprocity, if China’s going to do certain things to us at sea, what are we going to do? Are we going to continue welcome Chinese ships for port visits or are we going to say ‘sorry your naval behaviour is unacceptable, we can’t continue to welcome port visits’, we need to think about these. And I think we need to actually challenge some of the historical basis for some of China’s actions as well in an academic conference setting.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Great, thank you so much Bill and just before we go to questions because we do like to spark and have a debate, I mean that point, Bill, on you know perhaps there are larger battles to fight than whether a rock is lower or above water at high tide. I mean, John, on that point how would you respond?”

DR JOHN HEMMINGS: “Yeah this was quite, so you know just to be transparent, Bill has seen earlier drafts of this because we very much respect Bill’s expertise on this and this was an issue where he was unsure about where we were going on that, which is why he’s on the panel. Keep us honest and make sure there’s proper debate. You were far too nice to us for the rest of the time but so it’s a very good question whether the UK should be following through on these things. Certainly we don’t argue at the risk of other activities, we’re not saying that Britain shouldn’t do some of the things in terms of fishing stocks and energies that you’ve raised. But I think where we came down to it in terms of the 12 nautical miles line, which I think is one of the core issues where I think we differ a little bit, is the Obama administration very much had your opinion and I think they were very cautious and careful and I think there’s a tendency in some ways that China’s able to shape the narrative, that if we do things that are actually in the name of actual international law we’re creating tension, we’re creating problems. Now we were very careful about saying in the paper that these things would be done very carefully, try not to provoke China but that they would be done, that we would not, that if we gave into whether these artificial islands were not actually, these artificial islands, you know, they had some sort of legal creation. The danger is, the real danger is that it would embolden other powers to begin to go down that route. That, you know, the Russians could build islands in the Arctic route very quickly, that’s suddenly have legal, you know, claim legal. So you’re right, there’s dangers in terms of us doing to but there’s also dangers of not doing it and that’s probably, I’ll leave it there. Certainly if people want to come into the Q&A on that.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “So let’s extend the debate to everybody here. If you’d like to ask a question for our panel, could you pop your hand up just so you can catch my eye? It would be very grateful if you could just say who you are, where you’re from and if your question is directed to a particular member of the panel again just so we can get through this as quickly as possible and through as many questions. First I see Sir Michael Fallon had his hand up.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: “Thank you very much. Michael Fallon, former Defence Secretary. Certainly (inaudible) and indeed some of caution expressed by Bill. My question for the panel is this; China has entered into these international conventions but has international ambitions and is spreading itself across international trade routes and developing (inaudible). How is it we persuade China that one day it would be in China’s interest to have the law and sea convention fully respected? How do we go about that task?”


JAMES ROGERS: “You want me to answer a very hard question. Just gathering my thoughts. I mean, from my perspective, this is going to be the defining, in a way, the defining issue, I think, of the 21st century. At the moment, or of the last let’s say 5 to 10 years, we’ve been increasingly worried about what Russia is doing in relation to Eastern Europe and I say this that I am also very worried because I have family in Estonia, as some of you might know I used to live there and I lived there for 5 years and I built up an array of friends and relations. So I understand that but I think in the longer run, and this will actually draw in Russia too and Britain’s wider interest in Europe and elsewhere, this issue of what China is going to become and how it’s going to manifest itself in the next 10, 20, 50 years is going to be the defining issue of the 21st century.

Now, the issue is to try and convince China that revisionism of any form does not pay and that it is better to live by the established rules, which by and large China has also contributed to as we have just understood particularly in relation to the law of the sea, but also which benefit stable countries which wish to do business with one another. The issue, however, as I think Bill mentioned earlier is that China is still an autocracy and our hopes and ambitions that it would become a responsible stakeholder in relation to the rules based system because it would become richer and potentially it would become more democratic and more liberal and more open, have not come through and we can see this recently because of some of the things that China has been doing both domestically but also internationally. So from my perspective there is going to be a dimension here of traditional, and this makes people very queasy, but traditional geopolitics and that is to say we have to make sure that China cannot, that basically revisionism does not pay and secondly we have China, to some extent, pinned down. And one of the really interesting things that I’ve discovered over the last couple of weeks having, well last couple of months, having trawled through multiple editions of Jane’s Fighting Ships is to look at the relative tonnages of the Chinese navy, the PELAN, and the Royal Navy and of course the United States Navy. And there’s been a lot of discussion recently about China’s naval modernisation and it is impressive the degree to which China can build warships and it has increased its fleet quite substantially over the last couple of years indeed. It’s put something like 20% of the Royal Navy’s total tonnage and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary into its own fleet in the last year alone. Now the interesting thing is that if you look at the average size of a Chinese warship in relation to a British warship, to say nothing of an American warship, you will see that there is a huge difference. The average American warship weighs around 25,000 tonnes, the average British one around 15,000 tonnes and the average Chinese one around 5 or 6,000 tonnes. So what this tells you is that China has still got a very much a regional navy and it seems to me that if we maintain a navy with global reach and the ability to project itself across the Indo-Pacific region alongside the Americans and if we assist our allies, such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and so on and so forth in maintaining large navies as well, we will maintain the ability to keep China to some extent pinned down and to prevent it from thinking that it can actually manifest its growing power to challenge directly the rules based order in a way that other revisionist countries have done so in the past.

So that is from the ultimate, where we’d ultimately take this but this is also, of course, going to include as Bill said earlier a whole array of other components, diplomatic, economic and so on and so forth, and constructed in such a way I would say that it is to the benefit of China, as well as everyone else in the process. We shouldn’t try and see this as antagonistic but rather to try and maintain, to no small extent, the status quo which benefits us all.”


DR JOHN HEMMINGS: “Can I add one slight line to this just because you said everything I agree with but one slight line is that collectivise and multilaterise our responses. One of the things that China has done again and again is try to prevent regional states from trying to push. We’ve never had a Munich moment because we’ve never had a Munich.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Briefly there had been (inaudible) in response to that point about what can we do to get China to see that the law of the seas is in its interest. I mean, what’s your reflections on that?”

DR BILL HAYTON: “I’m always reminded of a press conference in 2008 when the Olympic torch was coming through London and Tibetan activists jumped in front of it and there was a press conference afterwards where Fu Ying, the Chinese Ambassador, was asked ‘was she worried about a boycott?’ And she looked at the journalist and said ‘what are you going to wear?’ And I think at that point people realised that the kind of idea of pressuring China to do anything was something that was for history. Now I think what’s important, I think, is to diversify as many sources of pressure as possible and to hold the line. And frankly I’ve been impressed by the way the UK government, even with the pressures of Brexit, has held the line in discussions with Beijing. Theresa May went to Beijing and I was fully expecting her to, sort of in a rather craven way, to sign on to the Belt and Road initiative and to say how great the idea of China building all British nuclear stations was. But she didn’t sign onto Belt and Road, unfortunately a nuclear power station is going to be built 10 miles from my house but that’s another problem. I mean the fact that the British Defence Attache in Beijing is currently a naval lawyer, I think, tells us that there is a dialogue going on or there is supposed to be dialogue going on between British naval lawyers and Chinese equivalents about the law of the sea and so forth. But I don’t think this on its own will be sufficient. It’s worth pointing out, I think, that all the South East Asian states, even Brunei, tiny Brunei, are holding the line as China pressures them to accept joint development in its words i.e. you give us half of your energy reserves. They are all holding the line and they’re refusing to back down on it. We need to support these countries and say ‘we are with you’, I think, at this point to make sure that they don’t because if they start caving then the rest of it becomes moot. We need, I think, to educate and support as many people as possible about the nature of these claims, why it is important, but I just think presence and support and constant reiteration of these boiler plate texts in diplomatic statements and so forth. i think if we stop doing that then China will just push, push, push. And finally, I think, we need to engage with the historical narrative. China, I believe, has a sense of righteousness about its claims in the South China Sea which I can show are rubbish and I think we just need to, you know, that evidence has to be put to the Chinese (inaudible) time and time and time again.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Thank you very much. Gentleman here at the front.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: “My question, Hugo (inaudible) China Media Centre, my question I think is for John Hemmings. Do we know why China has, Chinese politicians, political leaders, have taken this position i the South China Sea and therefore what it might take for them to renege on it if they end up beginning to regret it as Michael Fallon suggested.”

DR JOHN HEMMINGS: “It’s a wonderful question and of course it’s one of the most difficult. In my international relations career at LSE, one of the great riddles is intentions of political actors. We can never really tell, even when you’re interviewing a very senior political actor, what they’re intentions were at the time because of everyone always changes as they go along. I’ve thought about this for a few years as a number of different things and I’m cribbing a little bit from the Princeton academic Aaron Friedberg, who has written about this much more extensively than I have. So if you were China and the South China Sea could become tributary system 2.0, not an empire, certainly not but a kind of softer system, if that’s where economic growth then it would be a good idea for it to be a kind of an area where certainly people have sovereignty but its limited and restrained by Chinese fear. Also, you know, Western interlopers being in the region are recent historic phenomenons so you want to sweep them out the way. This is a very slow, incremental way of loosening US bonds with their North East Asian allies. All those North East Asian allies have 80-90% of their energy fuel travelling through the South China Sea, so it’s a kind of psychological lever as much as anything. And then there’s China’s own, of course, very justifiable insecurity about its trade routes. Justifiable? I accept that China has legitimate national interest, I just don’t like the way they’re being carried out. Of course, every power wants to know that its sea lanes are going to be secure, it’s just there are different ways of going about it. And then finally Friedberg’s, one of the ones he came up with which I thought was quite fascinating is that to some extent it also ties to Taiwan. As you begin to secure the seas around Taiwan, essentially you make it very difficult for the former hegemon of the region, the US Navy, to interfere in any sort of, shall we say, forced unification process. That’s not on top of the list but as you’ve seen from speeches, New Year’s speech by Xi Jingping, you know Taiwan remains a critical issue for the Chinese leadership.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Thank you. Yeah we do have quite a few questions to get through so the gentleman in the back corner.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: “My name is (inaudible), I’m a postgraduate student in the (inaudible). To touch on, sort of, your focus on FONOPs, which seems to be the crux of the ways of pursuing the strategy there. There seems to be an ongoing debate with the United States Navy, including Admiral Swift, who himself cited academics such as (inaudible) who are starting to question utility of FONOPs and there seems to be concept of FONOPs for FONOPs sake. So in what sort of wider context do you fit it into? And also add on the end, we’re focusing on China, both Vietnam and Republic of China claim everything within the 9 dash line and both of them close security actors now with the Americans in terms of acting there. So how do we, sort of, standardise the policy across all three? Especially into our moral sense of purpose as allies.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Bill would you like to take that?”

DR BILL HAYTON: “OK, yeah. The problem with FONOPs, the Freedom of Navigation Operations is based in the US and they sort of become a virility test between Republicans and Democrats and it sort of became a partisan issue in Washington about, well, Democrats are only doing two a year and we’re going to do four a year and this proves we’re bigger and tougher and stronger and it just became far too politicised and so therefore the Trump administration came in with a point of doing more with them. The whole point of the FONOPs program, and it’s not something that just happens in the South China Sea, it happens globally. It’s been happening since 1979 and the whole point is to go and challenge what are our, in the views of the US and mainly the views of the UK too, unlawful maritime claims. It’s not supposed to be a way of waving a stick at China, it’s supposed to be simply an assertion that we’re going to sail here because we think we have the right to do so, which is kind of why the UK, I think, does it quite impressively when it does so unless Gavin Williamson writes and slips it out to brief the journalists. So FONOPs should be a routine, non-politicised, non-publicised necessarily way of asserting a right, I think. Now, correct me slightly on Taiwan and Vietnam. Vietnam doesn’t claim, for example, Scarborough Shoal. It does claim all the Paracel’s and all of the Spratly’s. Taiwan’s institute is interesting. The Kuomintang party is much more the inheritor of the early 20th century claim. The DPP currently in power is much more skeptical. I think they would be quite happy, frankly, to give up most of their claims in the South China Sea and just focus on the one off feature they occupy, which is Itu Aba Taiping but to do so would cause so much antagonism with the PRC that it’s just not worth their while frankly. But yeah, I think Taiwan would be happy to just hang on to what it has.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Thank you and again it would helpful if you could direct your questions as well to any particular panelists as well. Yes sir.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: “Mike (inaudible), I’m just a person. I can’t (inaudible) an awful time but I think that means that I’m not having a good (inaudible). The thing that I’d like to ask is that what sort of future relationship do we want to have with China? I think that’s strategy because do we want to be a sort of younger brother or older sister, this sort of thing. If we can answer that then that may have guided us through some of this tactic because we seem to getting bogged down with all sorts of things about ships and somebody’s doing this and somebody’s doing that. We seem to going around and around but if we could perhaps stand back and say well ‘where do we want to be with China?’ (Inaudible) you know where you’re trying to get to and this answers to this certainly difficult question may become significantly easier. So I just wondered whether this is something our panel would like to comment on?”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “James? Do you want to take that question?”

JAMES ROGERS: “Yeah, I accept to some extent that we need to ask that question but you can’t ask it in isolation because you have to also ask ‘what does China want from us?’. Remember it’s China being the revisionist state here, not us. And the second point is if we want to ask what future relationship we want with China, we also have to ask what kind of relationship we want with Japan or the United States or Australia and all of those countries so it can’t be seen in isolation from that either. The kind of relationship I would say we probably would want with China is a relatively cordial one. We want a cordial relationship with almost every country in the world, that’s the main point. The issue is we can only accept that kind of relationship, it’s only worthwhile having cordial relationships if the countries themselves are upholding or abiding by the rules based system and are not seeking to revise the status quo in their local regions, whether that is Russia in relation to Eastern Ukraine or Eastern Europe more broadly, whether it is Iran in the Middle East or whether it is of course China in the South China Sea or more broadly.”


ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Apologies sir, we won’t, I’ll just try. Sorry sir, sorry apologies we’ll just try and get through as many questions as possible. What I’ll do is just because we’re running short of time I will take three and then I can farm these out to the guys on the panel. So first of all there is the gentleman there in the blue tie.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: “Walter (inaudible), King’s College. Question for John. Picking up on Bill’s point about the need to hold the line. Are there things that can be done to mitigate the risk of possible or probable Chinese pressure in reaction to the adoption of this kind of forceful freedom of navigation policy the report calls for? Because the report does note the recent case of South Korea, the significant economic coercion of the (inaudible). Are there steps that can be taken to prevent policymakers going squishy in the face of economic threats?”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Great, perfect. Gentleman there with the glasses and then I’ve got the gentleman in the back as well.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER 7: “Yeah, I’m (inaudible), I’m an academic. What do you think China makes of the West breaking the international rules based order? In my experience the Chinese seem more rattled by Trump’s tariffs than visiting warships. Would you care to comment? And to what extent do you think China’s neighbours want and are calling for our protection?”

ROSS THOMPSON: “Thank you and the gentleman at the very back. Yes.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: “Tom, member of the public. (Inaudible) to Bill and John that you think to achieve this (inaudible) so you think we’d need an increase in defence spending 2.5-3% and a few raised eyebrows (inaudible) in the audience. How likely do you think that is? Assuming it’s not going to happen. You have to rank these things of all the commitments. We’ve got 19 frigates and destroyers and indeed that’s not likely to increase but (inaudible). So in your view and I’d actually quite like to go to the MP who sits in Parliament who would have a say in defence spending as well.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Thank you very much. So first of all in terms of questions, John. What can we do to stop policymakers from going squishy, I think is the word.”

DR JOHN HEMMINGS: “Do you mind if I approach that one and also the break in international”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Oh you want to do two?”

DR JOHN HEMMINGS: “I’ll do two if I may and I’ll be even quicker with them. How to stop politicians from going squishy? I think we have to understand what China wants from us in terms of the actual, for example the RMB needs to be internationalised in the city. Britain still is a core provider of a number advanced technologies that China wants to be involved in. FinTech, infrastructure developments so you know, I think one of the things we can’t do is go begging with a begging ball. Britain has to realise it is also an attractive prize and I think politicians need to be reminded this when we’re looking at the huge infrastructure spending gaps and being terrified and saying ‘quick we have to beg for this’. We don’t have to, we need to also realise what we have.

Western breaking of international law, I can’t agree with you more. In this case, you know, with the tariffs, you know, if you go further than just that and saying that they’re breaking the WTO so the US, as you probably know, has taken China to the WTO with actually the EU and Japan as observers on the American side. It’s highly likely that WTO system, according to the Trump administration, the WTO system is being gamed and therefore it might break down and you can see they’re thinking of withdrawing. It fits all of Trump’s kind of anti-IGO language but I think there is a case to be had that before the, you know, the subsiding of companies, the IP loosening, all these kind of practices were also against WTO.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Bill that question on how do China view the West in terms of breaking rules. What’s your thoughts on that?”

DR BILL HAYTON: “Well the UK was taken to the Court of Arbitration in The Hague by Mauritius, I think, over the somethings that it had done in Diego Garcia. Now the UK was very unhappy about the verdict. We lost that case but the UK is working to try and bring, to try and remedy, to abide by the ruling. Contrast that with China which refused to take part, refused to recognise and refused to act on the rulings of an arbitration tribunal in July 2016. So yeah, I mean, states protest, they don’t like being held to account, they don’t like losing court cases or arbitral hearings or WTO ruling or whatever but you’re supposed to abide by it. I mean, even in the famous case when the US mined the harbours of Nicaragua in the 1980s and all the stuff that went round that, well you notice they haven’t mined any harbours since. So you could say that in some ways international court ruling did actually have an effect on US behaviour and international behaviour generally. Yeah I’m sure, you know, how many UN resolutions haven’t been implemented but does that mean we say ‘oh fine whatever’, you know, take over the world, invade whatever island you like. And the question about what do China’s neighbours want in terms of the UK presence? Well the fact that Malaysia and Singapore are members of the Five Power Defence Arrangement with the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the fact that Brunei has chosen to have a defence relationship with the UK, the fact that Vietnam welcomed British ships breaking port, Singapore, all the rest of them I’d say want us there.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Thank you, and last thing before I give you the brief comment, I mean James on the defence spending point.”

JAMES ROGERS: “Yeah I mean, I don’t accept what the point that you’re making in a way, if I misunderstood you, perhaps I did. But the point is that we’re arguing and we can see, I think, increasingly that the international environment is becoming increasingly volatile and unpredictable. The modernising defence program that was unleashed just before Christmas said this very explicitly and I think there’s a wider understanding that things are beginning to change and that the sort of nice years of the post-Cold War order or period are coming to an end. So therefore we cannot continue to spend what is essentially a peacetime defence budget, that’s 2% of GDP on defence. Now in 2006 that was agreed upon generally, though not in any binding way at the NATO summit in Riga in an informal group, to be the amount that’s required to maintain a peacetime defence force and to allow some modernisation. But that’s completely unsuitable for the kind of environment we are likely to going into so therefore we have to start thinking about increases and increases that will come sooner rather than later I think. So you might say that it’s not going to happen but I would say that at least from my position that I have to argue that it should happen because if not, we’re going to be taken unawares and if we’re going to be taken unawares then that means that there’s going to be war and if there’s going to be war there’s going to be a lot of people that are going to die. So therefore it’s better to use this as a dissuasive tool rather than giving up medicine in the future.”

ROSS THOMPSON MP: “Perfect. Thank you very much and briefly just to answer your point and I know actually that the chair of the Defence Select Committee is also sitting in the room so I hope I say the right thing which is, from my point of view as a politician, I think successive governments have literally rung everything they can out of the defence budget. They have really squeezed it dry, there’s not much more that can be cut and I think it’s time to reverse that given that we want to be a global player in the world, to help with peace and security in the world and we need to match that with funding, as well as giving our guys and girls in uniform some extra pay too. But we also need to encourage those of our allies and other places to start meeting their commitments on defence spending too. Anyway, thank you so much everyone. That is all the time that we have I’m afraid. I’m really quite sad in a way because I think we were really getting stuck into that. Thank you so much for coming along tonight and please could you join me in thanking our panelists for giving us such a lively, spirited and interesting debate. Thank you.”


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