Global Britain and the South China Sea

 EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Global Britain and the South China Sea

DATE: 6-7pm, 16th October 2018

VENUE: Committee Room 11, House of Commons

SPEAKER: Admiral Scott Swift (ret), Admiral Yeong-Kang Chen (ret), Professor Peter Dutton, Professor Peter Roberts, Dr John Hemmings

EVENT CHAIR: Mr Andrew Bowie MP

MR ANDREW BOWIE: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I’m just going to make a start. We are now at quarter past six. People will be trickling in. I am told that the Henry Jackson Society have scattered their interns through the building in order to shepherd guests to the right direction.

My name is Andrew Bowie MP. I am the Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kirkcaldy. I was elected in June 2017 and it’s an absolute privilege to be chairing this event this evening. Thank you very much to the Henry Jackson Society for organising it. And I have the distinct honour of chairing this very distinguished panel.

On this panel, I’m sure many people in this room know the individuals up here. A very brief introduction. I have on my left, Admiral Chen, who is the former vice-defence minister of Taiwan, very active on the think-tank circuit and a great and strong friend of the United Kingdom and the United States of America. On his left, I have Professor Peter Roberts, from RUSI, who was a former principle warfare officer in the Royal Navy and has done lots of work and written lots on this topic as well. He is the Director of Military Science at RUSI. On my right, I have Admiral Scott Swift, who has recently retired as the commander of the US-Pacific Fleet. He retired just in May the 17th 2018, and so his insight into what is going on in the South China Sea will I’m sure be invaluable. And on his right, I have Professor Peter Dutton, who is retired navy judge advocate and former naval flight officer, and is currently at the Naval College in the United States, and his research focuses on Chinese use of sovereignty and international law, and how those use are shaped by geostrategic and historical practice.

As I’ve said, it’s my absolute pleasure to be hosting this event, for what is a very timely moment. Especially when we are talking about the South China Sea, I don’t know if the influence of the Henry Jackson Society extends as much as maybe it seems. But when you plan this event months ago, you couldn’t have known how things will escalating out there at the minute.

Somebody in the Diplomat this week described the situation in the South China Sea to be ‘a pot of soup on a low boil’, which is only, I think, getting warmer. I think that is very apt and quite, puts it in some context. I am going to start by asking Peter to open with his thoughts on the current situation, specifically, I think, on the British perspective and situation regarding HMS Albion.

PROFESSOR PETER ROBERTS: Thanks very much for asking me to come. Huge privilege to be here. And I just want to take you back a little bit further than Albion’s now quite famous transit on the 23rd of August, and I want to take you back to the summer of 1999.

I was serving as a warfare officer on HMS Monmouth, known as the Black Duke of Frigate in the UK that was preparing to go on our Armilla patrol, which was the UK deployment of a ship to protect oil-tankers and further British interests in the Persian Gulf, or the Arabian Gulf, whichever word takes you. We have done most of our training. We were all sort of ready. And suddenly the captain called us in and said, right, on Monday we have a bunch of people from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office coming down, we have the fleet legal team coming down, a whole load of lawyers, and you gotta be here, sober, and with your heads screwed on. We were quite perplexed by this. We thought we were having some interesting equipment put on, on a spying mission, maybe something strange. But it was all about freedom of navigation patrols.

HMS Monmouth, along with other Armilla deplorers throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, undertook challenging of the Iranian claim to the territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. And Iran used to claim smaller bits of additional water, which if they weren’t challenged, these lawyers explained to us, would become theirs, through customary rights. And it was our duty, and our requirement as part of our mission to go every month, and to sail through these waters in order to challenge what was there: to break the existing norms, and to maintain the Royal Navy’s part in keeping the rules-based order at sea, the areas of international law which the UK respected and held to. And so we did.

We had some quite interesting interactions with the Iranian navy, with the Iranian Republican Guard navy, but it was just one of the things we did. But it shocked me at the time that having served at that stage 15-16 years in the navy I have never heard of this until that point.

Freedom of navigation was a sort of specialist area. It was something that was done before you went and asked. It was not a core part of your training. I understood what territorial seas were. I understood what contiguous zones were, what exclusive economic zones were. What flight information regions were. I understood the law behind this. But I’ve never heard of this thing called ‘freedom of navigation’.

It was also somewhat of a shock to me, that when we did it, we had to break away from our normal command chain. So a British frigate in the Gulf in the 1990s would work for an American admiral. They had what was called operational control, which meant that they directed where we were. We answer to them, not to London. The line went directly to America. It still works in much of the world today: we work for the Americans, the Americans might work for NATO, and some of these work for most other ships.

But for freedom of navigation, the American admirals were not content to have the British frigate doing it under their control. It was not part of American policy at that time to potentially escalate the situation, and various American admirals in fifth fleet, who were controlling body at the Gulf at the time said, ‘absolutely not’, and got quite upset about it. We had to fly out additional people to explain to them this was British policy and we did that for every month for 12 hours. We broke out of American leadership. We returned back to working for London, and we challenged the Iranian claim.

Now this was a really well-honed model. It was a great experience. The people in London, I was hugely impressed with when they came down. They had this enormous knowledge, this body of knowledge that was able to explain time and again, right through to you, to a simple sailor who did not know much about it, why we should be doing it. It was a wonderful thing.

So, when Secretary of State announced in February this year that the UK would be challenging and conducting a freedom of navigation in the China Seas with first HMS Sutherland and subsequent ships, I was fairly reassured that this same group of people, this body of corporate knowledge, would wind itself out again and explain it to ships and off they would go.

So I was somewhat taken aback when John Hemmings and I sat down with some senior people in the Ministry of Defence, and didn’t get the feeling that this had been as well considered as I had previously. That the difficulties that you have experienced in the South China Sea were infinitely more complex than you would get in the Persian Gulf with Iran. That the legal manifestations, that the opt-outs during ratification by the CCP and China were different. And I think perhaps, Peter Dutton will explain some of that in a bit.

It was distinctly different, but the willingness was there. And very, very quickly, it has become apparent that the UK has taken a very aggressive approach to learning about how to deal with this and to balance the difficulty in the economic aspiration of the UK, which is the prosperity agenda, and the conceptual, principled, element of this, which is the rules-based order and adhering to those international norms that we have come to know and accepted and have done for centuries. And this, freedom of navigation, this challenge to normative behaviour, is what has happened and ended up with the result of the 23rd of August this year, when HMS Albion sailed through the claimed the territorial seas of China near the Paracel Islands.

Everyone knew it was coming. Everyone knew it was coming since HMS Sutherland was in the Gulf since March this year. And it’s not the first time the UK has done it. You don’t have to do it with ships, typhoon jets that were coming back from exercise in Japan similarly challenged territorial airspace and sovereign areas of the islands two years ago.

The reaction of the PLAN, the Chinese navy, was aggressive. And many have said it was unprofessional, that it was close, that it was unnecessarily coercive. But they brought at least one frigate to the area which sailed just short of 200 yards away. When you have two ships, combined weight of about 40,000 tonnes, that was pushing up against each other at sea, at speed, it is a dangerous situation. You add to that two Chinese-navy armed helicopters. They were in vicinity a degree of aggressive verbal warnings. It forced a situation in which most captains would said to be fairly uncomfortable. Now this is not to say the UK was any more uncomfortable than the US would have done. The US recently had a much more aggressive experience. And the Royal Navy is used to this. At the same time, Albions have these pretty unpleasant interactions with the Chinese navy, so another UK Royal Navy ship was having similarly unpleasant interactions in the Strait of Hormuz with the Iranian Republican Guard. These are part of life at sea. But it certainly made the headlines.

The difficulty I think for the future, having sailed through both sides making protestations about what was right what was wrong, what was going to be done, is where the next step goes. The UK looks like it’s going to have a 1.0, so a permanent coverage of a Royal Navy warship out in the Indo-Pacific until further notice. Undoubtedly, a continued challenge to these claimed territorial waters, whether it’s the Paracels, the Spratlys, Fiery Reef, or whatever. These are going to continue. But how to do that and balance the UK prosperity agenda is an incredibly difficult and political decision for the government to balance. The military will go on and do what they’re told to do. But the political decision about how to balance those things is very, very complex. The idea that perhaps, in future, one of these ships should make a port call in China, or perhaps to Hong Kong, when it’s just completed one of these or has done so. It’s really a difficult situation to imagine happening.

This challenge, particularly such a well-publicised challenge to China, is a very public challenge to the party and the party leadership. And in that, It’s very hard for the CCP to walk back from their position and their public announcements. And so the UK is going to have to play this with great skill in order to balance out which one of these it prioritises. But they’re not exclusive. It’s not the case that the UK has to sail warships through territorial waters within three miles trailing its guns, flying its helicopters, raising submarines in the midst of Chinese fleets. It might be helpful, it might not be. But the point is it doesn’t have to do that. It can choose to do it, but it is doing I think in this last instance by the Albion demonstrates very clearly, it is doing what it historically has done, and that is to stand up for those international rules-based order, the normative behaviour that we have seen at sea before. And that is part, more or less, in this instance, of a continuous aspect of the UK and what the Royal Navy have performed for decades.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: Thank you very much. I would like to now ask Professor Peter Dutton.

PROFESSOR PETER DUTTON: Thank you very much. I’ve been asked to address two questions and I’m actually going to answer a third point. The question that I’ve been asked to talk about is that there are issues that are in fact our freedom of navigation (FON) operations are supposed to address? The second is, what do these FON-ops mean for the wider rules-based order that we’re all seeking to defend? So I’ll start with those and I’ll leave you in suspense with my point.

The legal issue of the FON. I can take you a whole course that lasts a whole year. By the end of that course maybe the people at the end of the line would be here in time to hear that. So now. But I won’t subject the rest of you guys to that. What I will say though, is that there are three problems that the People’s Republic of China has introduced into the South China Sea that does in fact really force the rest of the world to address in order to preserve the rights that Peter Roberts mentioned.

The first problem is that China have decided that first they’ll claim ownership to the four island groups of the South China Sea. That’s not a problem. That is not a problem. That is a question of dispute over sovereignty. That’s not a problem that really relate in any way to the freedom of navigation.

What you do with the rules about defining water space that are clearly articulated in the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea? That’s really what we’re talking about. So the first problem that we have about the Chinese in the South China Sea is not that they claim to those islands but that they group the islands for the purpose of drawing baselines around literally thousands of miles long around tiny little specs of land, inside of which is an enormous amount of water space that China then tries to allocate for itself. Water space that belongs in any ways the international community, and China is trying by grouping the islands, People’s Republic of China, I want to be clear, is trying to group the islands in a way that attempts to take the water space within those islands and even outside of those islands groups for itself. That’s the first problem.

So grouping disputed islands and by this I mean hundreds of miles, from one end to the other, with certainly less than one per cent of land, which is a tiny, tiny, land-to-water ratio. And they’re grouping them together, claiming some sort of sovereign rights, with inside that grouping, even though it’s water, and then claiming twelve-mile territorial sea along the lines that connects to outside of these groups. And then 200-mile exclusive economic zone on continental shelf from that. That’s the first problem. It’s grouping the islands. That’s because that violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. There is simply no question. This is not an issue of the grey area of the law, and it has been not only settled by treaty, as a matter of customary law, it’s also recently been the result of the Arbitration of the South China Sea case. So we know this, this is not disputed.

Second is that they then claim the additional zones. An enormous amount of water space, within which they claim the resource rights. That’s the second fundamental problem. Claimed resource rights that the laws did regarding the use of space. That’s the second fundamental problem that we confront.

And the third fundamental problem that we confront with China is that China articulates its right to control large space it claims in ways that exclude traditional international freedom to use those waters. For military purposes and for other purposes. Specifically for military purposes. Of course, that matters to the United States and Britain. It matters.

The second point that I was asked to make relates to that, which is that: what does FONOP mean? Freedom of Navigation Operations. We use this as a short-hand, FONOP, and sometimes it is a problem that we use this short-hand. That’s because in the United States, a FONOP is something very specific. It’s an operational assertion combined with a diplomatic note to the country to protest its excessive maritime claim. That’s a very specific programme. And its design is to preserve international freedoms. So an operational assertion combined with a diplomatic protest to preserve international freedoms at sea. That’s a (inaudible) of part of what the freedom of navigation programmes is.

But not all not actions to sail through waters in accordance to international law need to be a FONOP. It’s just exercising international freedom. So there really needs to be careful to distinguish between just the normal course of operating in accordance with international law and just due-course exercise of freedoms and a FONOP, which is a specific category of exercise that is designed to protect and preserve these freedoms as they matter directly.

So part of this has to do with preserving an international regime that is well-settled upon. It is regrettable, and I think deeply regrettable, that my country has not acceded to the Law of the Sea Convention, but we certainly support the Law of the Sea Convention and we support the rules of the Convention and accept them. The government has stated a number of times that we accept them as customary international law, the rules of how we define the maritime space. So this is a well-settled regime that we’re receiving in various ways, that we can talk about later, but China is clearly undercutting a well-settled international regime by its claims and by its actions. That’s the first fundamental problem. And China is very active, the People’s Republic of China is very active, as any country has the right to be, it’s very active in international space to talk about the development of international regimes in the future and that’s how you do it. Shifting of international regimes should be properly done in international forums and institutions and venues, where consensus can be developed and then read for change. Not just one country demanding for change, especially since this country in this particular case was a very active participant in the negotiations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It in fact, had a significant role if you go back to the records, it played a significant role in leading the group of what is called ‘the 77 developing nations’. So that’s a real problem for the international rules-based order. Even something that is very well-settled is being undermined by a growing state that is getting powerful and should have some proper international say in how rules evolve but it’s doing it in a way that is deeply unsettling to the way international law is evolving and international rules-based order.

So the very point that I want to make that I set you up earlier and I’ll leave you with is that often we talk about FONOP in terms of the challenge— in other words, we put the focus on the coastal states’ excessive claim. There’s another side to the coin though, right, which is, I started out with this point, which is that really what FONOP are, and really a freedom of navigation, in other words an exercise of the freedoms just simply operating at sea, is an assertion. It’s an assertion of our rights. It’s an assertion of our interests, of our authorities underneath the international law operative. So sometimes we focus too much on the challenge aspect on the freedom of navigation, the FON aspect, forgetting what we are doing is protecting and preserving the order, an order at sea that had benefitted all of us. And frankly, including the People’s Republic of China. China’s wealth, could not have happened had they not have the order at sea. So we need to recall when we think about what we’re doing is that what we doing is exercising leadership.

United States, Britain, Australia, France, Japan, India, all these countries exercise their freedoms of navigation in the South China Sea are exercising leadership. And we are exercising leadership to attempt to protect and preserve a system that has richly benefited the world, not just the few. It has benefitted the world. It’s an essential component to our global system.

So as you think about what Global Britain means, some people will be tempted to say, well Global Britain, what can three ships do. It’s not about necessarily exercising strategic power, but the exercise of strategic influence. Here, strategic influence is what Britain really can make a difference.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: Thank you very much. And now I would like to ask Admiral Chen to say a few words.

ADMIRAL YEONG-KANG CHEN: Good evening, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen. Ambassador Ling, Lords, ladies and gentlemen. I consider this really a great honour for me to share some of my humble observation regarding to the recent development in the South China Sea. I believe that all the sailors speak the same language, even some of them are more salty.

First is safety of navigation. Second is respect the right of freedom of navigation. Just like Professor Dutton mentioned that, in recent times, in the media, many people are discussing what is the difference between FONOPs and the freedom of navigation because our cousin, China, are building artificial islands based on that island they announced based on their twelve-nautical miles sovereignty sea. So whenever you came passing through there, they will force you to commit this innocent passage based on you have to inform them in advance. But for the other navies and any other merchant ships, this is just a freedom of navigation. Then you want to express we do not accept this kind of limits you put upon us so we will send vessels passing through the twelve nautical miles. We consider this a freedom of navigation operations.

South China Sea is so important to all the countries. Three trillion dollars of sea-borne trade through this second-largest sea lane of communication. Everybody like to see the regional security as stable so we can enhance the prosperity, not to see any conflict happen here. Anything happen in the South China Sea will force the increase of insurance fee, and maybe have detour the route, not passing through South China Sea, instead of go through the Strait of Lombok or passing through the east coast of Philippines. So how to maintain the regional security and let our friends from the Royal Navy showing that flag to see this is an important area and also important role they can play is the reason why we get here together to share some concern or we can learn from you.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: Thank you very much, sir. And now I would like to ask Admiral Swift.

ADMIRAL SCOTT SWIFT: First, thank you for chairing the panel. So I’m continually struck by the lack of understanding of what’s at play. We all four of us know each other well because of we talk about this and we’ve lived it together for a long time. But as I participate now that I’m retired there are more and more of these forums, I find that I spend a significant amount of my time trying to characterise and put the challenges in context. So let me try to share a practitioner’s view, my experience of what I’ve seen and certainly as a sailor in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

I think first of all, the terms are very important. And different nations use different terms. I think that’s part of the education process that we can come together and speak in a common language. I’m also struck by what I see the value of talking about any challenge that we face in the context of the science of the problem and the art of the problem.

As a naval officer, I was a practitioner of the science of naval warfare until I was about a captain. And then I transitioned from a practitioner of the science of warfare to the art of warfare. And much of what we’re talking about here is the transitioning from the science of what can be done there, and transition to the art of what’s happening. That’s why, Peter had the experience that he did with a reluctance of a US commander to support a operation that was a statement of a national view on the part of Britain. And I feel the same way about US Freedom of Navigation operations, those are inherently national in nature. Each nation invariably has a little different perspective of what message it’s sending.

The science side, of course, is critically important to the men in charge. Because whether you are sailing inside the twelve-nautical miles in it or if you are sailing the strait baseline demarcation, or if you are challenging a pre-recorded presence, all of those are violations of UNCLOS, such as freedom of navigations in the context of UNCLOS, and it could be any of these elements that are being challenged. And that clearly needs to be understand by the nation that is authorising the operations. These clearly are operations, first of all, that are in commands and in fact the United States model, and there are not operations for the military to land on the table. We get these directives from our civilian leadership and then we execute it.

But I do, I’m very interested in the time here, I do want to get to the questions. But a thread that I want to pull, is that it’s troubling to me that in this discussion about the rules-based order that invariably it comes down to military elements of the rules-based order. That’s not what’s most critical. So the freedom of navigations are declarative statements in support of the sustainment of the rules-based order as we know it. It is in the maritime domain. But the rules-based order is being challenged in what I’m using the (inaudible) to describe, the diplomatic, the military, the economic, the financial, the intelligence, and the legal. It’s all of those elements of government that the freedom of navigate within those domains are being challenged.

What is important and I’ll use the (inaudible) as a point of departure and turn the microphone back to the chair here is that I’m struck by the amount of writing that has a focus on China’s dismissal of defining of the tribunal. That’s not the most troubling part. What’s the most troubling point is the tribunal itself— China rejected the authorities of the tribunal itself.

So the freedom in navigating from the trade perspective is the WTO. There’s a set of rules that governs the activities of the members of the World Trade Organisation that governs their actions. I was a supporter of the TPP. I recognise the role national politics plays in it, so the US military is found upon that the (inaudible) I’m going to get involved politics. But I wanted to make it make clear that the TPP formed a rules-based order that governed the protection of personal information, the protection of banking information, how banking information is shared and protected. And the fact that the region felt that that was so important is reflected in the leadership of Prime Minister Turnbell and Prime Minister Abe who moved forward with the TPP11, and they left doors open for others to participate. My understanding is, from recent readings is that, Britain has been offered the opportunity to participate in the TPP.

So I was at a dinner party the other night, one of the question that I was asked after a broad discussion was what can we do? Well my first recommendations is go look in the mirror. It’s embraced the rules-based system as we know it and recognise in the Pacific that the rules-based order came out of a convention in 1951 in San Francisco. But not only were the initial rules established, the institutions to change the rules were established. Knowing that the world would change going forward, as it certainly has in the last 70 years since the end of the World War Two. That the institutions needed to be established so that people that were participating in the rules-based order could go to the institutions to change the rules themselves.

So this is a much broader than just a military freedom of navigation in the maritime domain. This is a much broader issue that we all need to think deeply about.

And I’ll close on this point. We have much more in common than we do in competition with China. But competition is not a bad thing. What is important if you’re going to have peace is to understand what the rules are. This discussion is as important as participants in the rules-based order, as it is to those that are challenging the rules-based order. They are the ones that are just as important as to be part of that dialogue, and the dialogue is what is critical, which is why I appreciate (Inaudible) this panel here this evening.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: Thank you very much Admiral Swift. And thank you very much to all our panellists for giving us such qualified insights into what is an incredibly complex area. I am going to (Inaudible) in one second, but I am going to use the (Inaudible) of being in the chair to ask the first question. It goes back to something Peter Roberts said at the beginning. How do we square that circle between driving a prosperity agenda which we are calling the age of Global Britain and defending Freedom of Navigation in these parts of the world where it is under threat? We saw the response to HMS Albion where China tried to block any free trade deal between ourselves and China post-Brexit in response to what we did, so how do we square that circle, and where do we start?

PROFESSOR PETER ROBERTS: For most people this is a distinct choice and it becomes one or the other, and you come up with a more formed and complete strategy towards, for example, any other state which says ‘this is where I am economically’ etc., but it is very difficult to do that balance in the same way it is very difficult to do with Russia. Do you complete exclude Russian money? Do you start to sanction Russian individuals? Do you start to come down on people who live in London with a Russian passport? These are all difficult and thorny issues. I think the problem is with China, is, and this is what Admiral Swift said to me earlier, HMS Albion’s action was flying directly in the face of Xi Jinping. This wasn’t a case of diplomacy between foreign office to foreign office. This was a challenge to the leadership of the People’s Republic of China. You can’t walk back from that. Once you have stepped across that line, and you can talk to the Norwegians about this, it wasn’t even their fault when the Chinese blamed them for awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to somebody the Chinese didn’t like, so the Norwegians were shut out of any diplomatic or economic relationship with China for 6 or 7 years. So I think you need to understand that in doing this, you write off every other option that is on the table. Trade goes, prosperity goes, everything. But it is a question of your priorities; could you possibly get it back? Yes! Absolutely. If you capitulate entirely to the wishes of the CCP in China and you end up with promises that you will never do that again, that you are contrived, you make apologies, therefore this is big politics. I don’t know if there is an easy answer to that, but most people would say it is a direct choice. I don’t know Admiral if you would say the same?

ADMIRAL SCOTT SWIFT: I would agree, I don’t think I could state it any better, but as an outsider looking in, from a British perspective, my personal view is that I am always surprised by how people characterize who I am. Invariably their opinion is much higher than my own opinion of myself! But as I’ve spent some time for the first time I was experiencing Britain as I was transiting through Heathrow Airport back and forth to the Middle East when I was the deputy commander of Naval Forces in Central Command. All my experience, in 40 years of experience has been in the Indian Ocean and the Asian waters and the Pacific waters, so this is a new experience for me to be here in London. But the core of maritime law was founded here, in Britain. The core of parliamentary procedure was founded here, or at least brought to the fore in such a meaningful way that others turned in a sense of respect of the governance that occurs. And especially when you face such challenging issues, I mean I cannot imagine what your life has been like that week and what it will be like for the coming weeks.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: (laughs) Quite quiet actually, not much going on.

ADMIRAL SCOTT SWIFT: It’s such consequential issues that Britain is facing and I would suggest, isn’t it wonderful as an outsider that you have such a strong sense of governance that requires debate; public debate. That in my mind is what is being challenged. And the fact that it is Britain’s voice that is being brought into that international community. I think one reason that the American voice is strong is that we don’t have claims in the South China Sea and we make it very clear that we don’t take positions on the claims that exist; we rely on the international rules based system to resolve them. That is what is being challenged. Two last points I’ll make. One is the whole government approach. The United States needs a grand strategy of what is most important to the United States around the world. Part of that grand strategy is how to deal with the Indian Ocean, certainly in regards (inaudible) the South China Sea. If I was to turn to anybody with advice on how to build a grand strategy it would be my friends in the British military. I mean it’s the birthplace of military doctrine! And the last point I will make is that I see more and more a nexus between what is happening in Europe and what is happening in the Pacific. There is a very interesting article which I think was just published in the latest issue of The Economist; the title of it was ‘China and the EU’ but the specifics were really focused on the maritime domain of Czechoslovakia and what they facing in dealing with China. It was an example I think of how we need to expand the dialogue beyond the maritime, because these are consequential issues and if we just focus on the maritime I think there is a higher probability that we could back our way into a conflict which no one wants.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: Peter would you like to jump in?

PROFESSOR PETER DUTTON: I have two quick points, in part referencing what I said earlier. I think the answer to your question is at least in part down to what kind of world you would like to live in. This is a really important question we all have to ask. Do we want to live in a world in which we are beheld to China and where we have to apologise to China for asserting our freedoms? That’s the first question. Because sometimes we think that the world as it is was the world as it is. In fact, the world was created and has to be maintained, and it is given to some states to lead. And certainly it is given to the United States to lead and it is given to Britain to lead. You have a permanent seat on the security council and you have a very important voice in the international system, and I think that Britain is a strategic influencer on a global basis. Therefore I think we have to ask that question over what is the world you would like to live in, and how do we help to create it? And sometimes there is a cost to doing that. The second thing I want to point out is you might find that you have more manoeuvre space than you think. We’ve been talking about the issue that has come up in this week’s discussion here, I need to say, I forgot to mention earlier that I still work for the United States Government so everything I say here is my personal perspective. But one of the things we have to remember is that I think we may have more manoeuvre space than we think. And I think this current administration has found that the United States has more manoeuvre space than previously realised. You may find the same thing. Because we have to remember that China needs us as much as we need China, and let’s be honest, we all need China. This is not a problem that only Britain faces, every state faces it. So all states are in the same position when it comes to the PRC and China needs us as much as we need China, and I just think that’s worth keeping in mind.

ADMIRAL YEONG-KANG CHEN: As a private citizen I can report to you in Taiwan that we are a maritime nation but our influence in this area is very small, so we cannot take the lead. But we respect the law of the sea. And we respect every civilian ship, every governmental ship, every naval vessel can enjoy the right of freedom of navigation. But what we are talking about isn’t just a military issue. It is a political and economical geostrategic; they mingle together. Everything comes back to energy, security and economic development. So we have to carefully review this issue. It is not about sending in more ships to show the flag, to demonstrate we have the capability. We have to defuse the conflict. It is more important than showing your power as you can lose the peace.

QUESTION: That is a brilliant exposition of the problem and what is being done about it. What is the best way of changing China’s behaviour? Because so far, it is not working.

ADMIRAL SCOTT SWIFT: I think it is consistency and it is important that the discussion is strategic. And it is important to talk about the importance of the rules-based system, and it is okay to change those rules that need to be changed in the context of the structures that were established. There needs to be a debate; it cannot be done through force and coercion. So there needs to be consistency in that message. Multilateralism is critical in this. China seeks bilateral relationships where they can bring the weight of the Chinese economy, the Chinese government, the Chinese military, all the power of national power to bear upon a specific country. So they don’t view the South China Sea as a broad problem, they see it as multiple problems with individual countries. For instance, although I hesitate to say this as I don’t want to use the US Government’s freedom of navigation exercises as an example because I think they are overstated but strategically, the strategy behind the Freedom of Navigation operations should be to reassure allies, partners and friends. It is not going to make a difference with respect to China, because as Peter and I were discussing earlier, this strikes at the legitimacy of Xi Jinping if that was to change. So it is about the 100 years of humiliation and reversing that. That’s why this discussion is so sensitive and should occur at the highest levels. And the dialogue needs to talk about what the core issues are and the science behind the international rules based system. The World Trade Organisation gives us an opportunity, the International Planking Rules gives us an opportunity to talk about what those rules are and to ask the question to those who have been challenging those rules. This is the process that by design is how we go about changing those rules. Everyone has a stake in this challenge, it’s not just a maritime challenge, though all nations need to compete. I see it heading down a path of what happened in Georgia, or what happened in the Ukraine. This is an opportunity to look at that same problem to talk about a lack of discussion about governance. What are the rules that are going to govern the resolutions of frictions that occur between nations just over the normal course of business. So it is embracing the international rules based system and asking the question of those that want to change that system outside of the norms that have been established. Why is it occurring and what is the justification for acting outside of those norms.

PROFESSOR PETER DUTTON: I’ve written that freedom of navigation operations are necessary for the reasons that have already been discussed, but alone they are insufficient. They have got to be a component of a power dynamic. I agree that we are not going to coerce China into changing its mind. That’s not my point about power. There is a military component to the power dynamic, but as we discussed earlier it has to be part of a larger power dynamic that includes multilateralism that has a military, a political, an economic and informational component. Because the entire point is for mutual reinforcement across the instruments of national power of the rules based order. And mutual de-legitimisation of China’s – or any country’s efforts.

PROFESSOR PETER ROBERTS: It is one of the most taxing questions that anyone faces at the moment; how you change someone’s behaviour. But a state like China is particularly difficult. I was reminded of having this conversation with a guy who I think is probably the brightest researcher I have ever met who was saying to me that we take China’s rise as a pre-ordained given and he as an economist sits there and says it’s still only 50:50. China responds to international voices. I think sometimes when we are sitting here in London it is easy to think that we are naval gazing and talking to ourselves and that actually it is the EU that is the big voice, and yet when you go to Asia they have no voice and they invited out of politeness. Actually the British voice and the British opinion is incredibly strong in the Indo-Pacific. Just by having the discussion and having the debate, and it being discussed at the most senior levels, that starts forcing them to take notice. And whether these things are bilateral, multilateral, or the famous quads, the engagement of Britain and France in this conversation with Australia, Japan, and Korea and the United States as well, this is very powerful. Because China plays this in a divide and rule way. The other thing China doesn’t do well with either is unpredictability. It really has problems dealing with unpredictability. And so what Xi Jinping and what the CCP want the most is a set of ruling parties who have very clearly established positions and articulated strategies which they can find their way around. And so you see with the last three presidents of the United States, within three months of taking office there was a significant challenge towards them from China; it might have been cyber, it have been at sea, it might have been in the air. And it forced a response where it knew it wouldn’t escalate. That never happened with President Trump. Because he’s seen in China as so utterly unpredictable, that they didn’t know if the incident would go unnoticed or risk massive retaliation. Their behaviour has changed as a result. The whole attitude of China in the South China Sea changed subtly. And it remains slightly changed from where it was over a year ago. It is a really interesting thing to see, they cannot deal with the decision-making, they cannot deal with an unpredictable respondent.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: At this point I am going to bring in Doctor John Hemmings who is with the Henry Jackson Society who has been sitting at the end here.

  1. JOHN HEMMINGS: I will speak very briefly because I think we are privileged to hear from such experts. I think one of the things that has occurred so far which makes a lot of sense to me is that China is necessary, and a great and wonderful civilisation, but one that is rising, and like many rising powers, is trying to reorder its own periphery, and by doing so is knocking and leaning on various other elements of other region’s rights, and how the South China Sea fits into that is that it is a close up and is a very clear example of what is also happening on the wider global stage. I think that absolutely, a whole government approach would have to be necessary. China is very good at using all of its various ministries to apply pressure. We’re not very good at it, here in the UK or over in the US. Therefore it is very easy for us to be caught off-guard or caught in these moments. I do believe very much in something Admiral Scott Swift said over the last few days that we have been chatting about this together, is that the multilateralism that you have at home in your various ministries, you have to also replicate in the region. People will say what will a British boat do, but it is not just a British boat, it is a British boat with European sailors or French Marines. You could be on the radio with Japanese fighters. Everyone is in the community to socialise the area into a better direction.

ADMIRAL YEONG-KANG CHEN: I believe that this South China Sea issue, that in the long run we should go back to the UN member so we can seriously discuss how to interpret the current situation. One of the reasons the Chinese totally reject the arbitration work is that they believe they over justify those issues over sovereignty. Because the artificial islands really cannot enjoy the 12 nautical mile sovereignty sea. But they use this as an excuse, saying there is now a sovereign island in the South China Sea. The Republic of Taiwan actually has a coastguard over there. They call it an island but people cannot be supported to live on it. We have fresh water, we have a forest on the island, but the re-word of this tribunal says it is not an island based on the fact that there is no single reef. But now the Chinese are building these artificial islands, especially the three major islands Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef. These three islands form a triangle that covers a very large area. They have an air runway, long range missile seeking sites, and they even fortified the islands. And the three islands cover a triangle that covers 700 to 600 nautical miles in distance. And whenever you have a ship passing through this area, they say you violate against their sovereignty. We will probably have to go back to the UN again to justify this tribunal verdict.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: I am going to begin my audition to be the David Dimbleby replacement and start with the gentleman there with the beard and the glasses.

QUESTION: My question follows from Peter Robert’s point on the perceived lack of impression of the EU in Asia. Are the European countries doing enough to show they are committed to a strong maritime defence, in relation to the resources in AIP (inaudible). Is China developing any conclusions to this perceived lack of commitment?

PROFESSOR PETER ROBERTS: The EU embassies are now scattered through the Indo-Pacific and it has quite a significant footprint out there. The point is that individual states don’t want a relationship with the EU, they want a relationship with states and a bilateral way of doing it. They don’t really do big alliances. So it is very hard for a pan-European voice to exist, and even then it would take a generation for it to be accepted. So are other European states doing enough? Well, I am not sure what their interests are. I think the real question is if France is doing enough, and the answer is yes they are, they are absolutely there. France is in many ways slightly more forward leading than the UK in its attitude towards freedom of navigation and transits. And it certainly is increasing its military presence and it did not disappear, unlike the UK, who disappeared from the Asia-Pacific for about 4 years. Could Europe do more in terms of producing AIP submarines? Taiwan has been screaming out for help with AIP submarines for decades and no one has helped them. It is very difficult. Of course more can be done, but it is a political question again. If you wish to help Taiwan, you will anger China. Are we willing to take that pain?

ADMIRAL SCOTT SWIFT: In direct answer to your question, my response would be that tactical operations should be extensions of a national grand strategy. Again, I think I am in a unique position, as a practitioner of naval power for most of my career, I have been asking myself how this should be applied in accordance with a grand strategy or a national strategy. These are notes I took when my good friend Admiral Chen was talking. What you do tactically is uniquely national in nature. That needs to be stated up front. This requires guidance from a national level to decide upon what tactical actions are to be made. Next are some common concerns around the international rules based order which Admiral Chen was speaking to. The UN or a wider or narrower organisation is where that dialogue needs to occur; to talk about the international rules based order. What are the institutions that are established to change those? And from that should derive the tactical actions which reinforce a nation’s view that these elements are important to the nation. There is another element here that we haven’t talked about. And that is the establishment of sovereignty. And that is because, what is happening in the South China Sea is that there is unanimity in the view of everyone except China, that China is establishing national sovereignty in international space. My view is that is also happening in the diplomatic domain, the information domain, or the other domains of government as well, which is why it’s so compelling. Which is why you have to ask yourself the question, why wouldn’t we, the collective we, get involved as a nation, where we see these core values, or democratic values, that are being challenged. A point I’ll make it, which is something that Peter alluded to, is that it is so easy to judge, because it is so difficult to understand. China truly believes that the South China Sea is their sovereignty. That is where the dialogue needs to start. It is not even about enclaste, because in their view, clearly enclaste doesn’t apply because this is sovereign space, and enclaste applies if it is international space. So it is really important that we have this strategic dialogue back and forth, with all the claims, whether or not they’re diplomatic claimants or business claimants or banking claimants being challenged to make sure we get to those issues of understanding why there is this divergence in the rules based order.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: The next person is that chap there with the blue shirt.

QUESTION: What is the likelihood of an accident happening that leads to something worse?

ADMIRAL SCOTT SWIFT: You started off by talking about risk and I think the risk discussion should stay with strategic risk. It is an interesting parlour game to have a discussion about where the trigger would occur but it is not important because you end up immediately at strategic risk. We have to understand as best we can the position of all claimants, not just territorial claimants but claimants to the international rules based order, because that defines what their perceived risk is going to be. I believed the legitimacy of the Xi Jinping government is grounded in the claims of the South China Sea, so I think that you need to consider that if you’re challenging those claim you are challenging the legitimacy of Xi Jinping. So people need to go into whatever tactical actions they may take with their eyes wide open. I will go back to my first statement and emphasize how important the dialogue is, it is not nearly robust enough between the key individuals, for example Britain and the EU should look at the same problems the EU has had with Russia and bring those experiences to the Asia-Pacific. If that happens, I think the likelihood of unintended consequences would be reduced. Let me say this, China is not interested in conflict. They want to avoid conflict as well. I have visited with the Colonel and the three fleet commanders in China. I knew the previous three fleet commanders. I knew the previous head of the PLAN and I know the current head of the PLAN. There is unanimity in our view that we are very concerned that some tactical action did not result in a strategic challenge which is now laid at the presidents of both our countries fleet which clearly neither side wanted. But I think the open broad discussion is incredibly important to appropriately characterize what is nationally at stake for each one of those broad stake holders. Not just territorially what is at stake but what is at stake in the international rules based system.

PROFESSOR PETER DUTTON: I think actions that lead to circumstances which could lead to something worse overstates the circumstances significantly. I will give four quick reasons for this. The first is that these sorts of operations are quite isolatable. That’s one issue. The second issues, and I think Admiral Swift got to the centre of the point, that conflict is caused by structural tensions in the fundamental relationships. My view is that this is not what the South China Sea is about. If there is a deep structural tension in the relationship, it is not going to be about the South China Sea. The third thing I want to say is that I actually think risk has a purpose. It demonstrates resolve and it demonstrates commitment to the rules based order that we’ve been discussing. And at some point, what is a navy for? The fourth point I want to make is that I am not sure I entirely agree that FON ops get to the legitimacy of Xi Jinping as has been said. I think it is important not to overstate that. The truth is that the Chinese Communist Party as a whole has made a bargain with the Chinese people that is essentially founded on two pillars. One is economic and the other is to restore Chinese grandeur if you will, and restoring the Chinese dream. And that second pillar is about restoring influence in the South China Sea and in the rest of the region. But there is so much more to what solidifies the communist party and what solidifies Xi Jinping’s power, or weakens it. So I am convinced myself that these types of operations don’t undermine his leadership. If he needs to point to successes every time there is a FON op in the South China Sea, all he needs to do is point to island buildings like Admiral Chen mentioned. So Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef were built into a total of more than 3200 acres. Each one of them started the size of something not bigger than this room. Something to keep in mind is what was built in the South China Sea was three bases, each of which is larger than the Honolulu complex of Hickam Field and Pearl Harbour. If he wants to point to successes in the South China Sea to bolster his credibility, that is all he has to do. So I wouldn’t overstate that too much.

ADMIRAL YEONG-KANG CHEN: I fully agree on that point that tactical action cannot just solve strategic problems. All the activity conducted by PLAN is under the control of Thousand Command. The Commander is a naval officer for the first time. I believe they do not have the details of the rules of engagement, from the commander to the ship captain, so sometimes they will overreact, taking a dangerous approach. Regardless of the safety of navigation, the captain may just want to show that he fully supports President Xi Jinping’s will. But under a chain of command, we need to review if they have the documentation tasking all the service ships. We are all sailors. We have night orders and rules of engagement. Everyday we need an update of the situation. But if you just follow the will of the leader you will make mistakes.

PROFESSOR PETER ROBERTS: It is going to sound boring because we are all agreeing with each other, but I will present a difference perspective from Peter. Yes, you could argue that Xi Jinping and his legacy, which I am sure he is already thinking about, is One Belt One Road, the Belton Road Fund and the South China Sea. The annexation of the South China Sea, which they see as a piece of land. They don’t see it as a piece of sea, they don’t recognise the oceans as the global commons. The narrative that has come out of China since 2014 onwards revolves around those three things. This is about what the legacy will be. I put it to you that it is entirely possible that this could be an instance which triggers massive escalation. Absolutely. And you need to go into this with your eyes fully open. Even if it is contained, you might lose that ship. Those aircraft. That aircraft carrier. It could be gone. And you can contain that within your overall strategy, but that’s the risk and that’s what you deal with. This is why you have a strategy, and it is important to understand that. But I also believe that the CCP thinks it will control the first and second island chains, and it will do so at some stage. Not that it will do so within the reign of Chairman Xi, not that it will do so in 30 years or by 100 years of the PLA, but it will do so at some stage, within that long memory which is Chinese military doctrine. They will get there, but will just do it longer than we’re willing to take an interest in it.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: I think the difference in our minds in the West, especially in what we call a long term economic plan being a five year plan and what a long term plan in China is quite different. The gentleman in the pink shirt.

QUESTION: We haven’t mentioned the other claimants to the islands in the area. We don’t hear much going on about that at the moment.

ADMIRAL SCOTT SWIFT: You’re exactly right, and whether it is channelling good advice to the US government but we are following that advice. I am not aware if the United States, at least no in the three years that I was a Pacific Fleet commander, we never conducted a single FON ops that was uniquely challenging a Chinese claim. There were at least two other claims we were challenging as well, and often three other claims. So the characterisation of the State Department of what it was the United States were reinforcing (inaudible) three or four countries which included China, and we conducted these all over the world. We have a standing dispute with Canada over the San Juan Islands. The United States and Canada decided that we were not going to discuss it because the resolution process is more disruptive than the process in place which is that we have two different positions. Go study the positions for the territorial claims between India and Bangladesh. A very powerful country in India made every attempt to negotiate a resolution. When you are not able to do it you go to the tribunal and the consensus came out in favour of Bangladesh and the Indians recognised that the power of the law was stronger than the outcome of the decision. And then Myanmar took the example when the resolved a territory claim with Bangladesh. It is the power of arbitration. But this is the point of FON ops and that is why they have to be done at the national level. There has to be a clear understanding and a common policy. And I would strongly advise anyone who is challenging a Chinese claim to pick a piece of the water that is claimed by 3 or 4 other countries, because you are challenging the law. Vietnam doesn’t respond how China does, because they recognise that this is a dispute.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: I am going to take two more questions because I am conscious of time. There is a gentleman with the glasses at the back.

QUESTION: Why does President Xi keep referring to the century of humiliation?

PROFESSOR PETER DUTTON: Well the Chinese Communist Party had for the first 30 years of its rule had a fundamental Maoist ideology, that by the end of the cultural revolution and the great leap forward which were damaging to China, the party decided they were going to create a bargain with the people that I described earlier which we are going to reform and get rich and strong. And the second thing was that we are going to overcome the previous humiliations and define them for ourselves. Very few countries celebrate humiliation if you think about it. All countries have humiliating moments, but very few countries focus on it. And so there has got to be a deep political purpose for that. It is to legitimise the Chinese Communist Party as having providing something competent to the people. It is a way of articulating confidence; economic confidence and political confidence. So that is why you keep hearing that word.

ADMIRAL SCOTT SWIFT: I am not an expert on China but to expand on Peter’s comment it is about the legitimacy of the government to the Chinese people. China has many more internal problems than they do external problems but they like to externalize their internal problems, so it has been useful to educate the Chinese people on the century of humiliation. And I have got to say personally that I feel bad for it. Look at our own American history and where we were with the indigenous people in America before we all left Britain and the rest of Europe and settled. But you can’t continue to grow a country by looking backwards and nursing the wounds of wrongs that were done by generations before, so that’s all part of this discussion. This is part of a discussion that is so important for any country before they get involved in the dynamics of what is happening in the Pacific. We tend to want to simplify the problems that we face. Do not try and simplify this problem. It is complicated in nature and any response will be complicated as well.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: Last question to the gentleman right in front of me here.

QUESTION: I noticed there was a trend as I grew older that the world had to kowtow to China. No one may offend China. Do I detect from tonight’s meeting that there has been a subtle shift in Maritime ops and shift in attitude towards China?

ADMIRAL SCOTT SWIFT: I think we need to be careful about characterizing competition as a bad thing; I wouldn’t use that term. What I would describe is, based on the increasing power of China, they will be able to apply their power in ways that correct wrongs of the past. I think that is what’s happening. What it means is that more and more action is required. I am not an expert on Europe, but as someone who has been a distance from Europe throughout my career I can’t help but draw parallels between Georgia and Ukraine and what Russia has done there and ask myself the question, because we are not acting strongly enough in the Indo-Asia Pacific if we are not heading down a similar path. It becomes more and more problematic if there is not a broad consensus reaction to the rules that are changing across the whole of government and the whole of business. It is not just a maritime issue. I think Australia is doing more. New Zealand is almost wholly dependant on China for its dairy trade and it’s dairy business is the critical business in New Zealand, and they are stepping forwards and carrying out more operations in the South China Sea.

PROFESSOR PETER ROBERTS: Well what China does is legal everywhere, so it is a competitor. This is a competition that is on a bilateral basis. Some countries are not fronting up to it. They are understanding what the competition is and they are making a choice. You can see the distinct difference from the Cameron government, which was everything China wants to the May government which has got a more nuanced view. But you can also see the countries that are poorer which will do almost anything to secure Chinese funding. And this includes the famous ports that now exist in Pakistan, Djibouti, Paria, the South Atlantic and now South America. Poor countries want China’s cash and will cede to China’s demands for economic prosperity. Others have taken a more principled view, but it still signifies a choice, and as the Admiral said, it is about weighing up the risk and the opportunities and the benefits, and, as Peter Dutton very eloquently said, how do you want to live.

PROFESSOR PETER DUTTON: I will end with the thought I started with, which is that words matter, and the other side of the coin is assertion. Words matter in the sense that a challenge is directed at China. An assertion is about us. It’s about an assertion of our rights and our interests as we understand them. So I think words matter to soften the sharper edges of competition but I want to come back to that last thought about what world do we want to live in. I gave a talk at Brookings a long time ago called ‘Streetfighter Soccer match’. Streetfighter soccer: both are competitions, only one is with switchblades and the other is with a referee with a whistle. So what do you want? Do you want a stronger rules based order in which we can compete effectively or do you want to play with switchblades. The idea is that the rules based order matters and focusing on the rules based order rather than poking a finger at China is a better way to think about it.

ADMIRAL YEONG-KANG CHEN: I would like to talk about the history from Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao. They always mention idea of keeping a low profile. Conceal your capability and intention. But when President Jiang Zemin assumed the position he mentioned: wealthy country, strong army. And to double the tempo of the build up of military capability. Last year, on the 30 July, China celebrated the PLA 90th’s anniversary. They conducted a huge military parade. This sent a very strong signal that China is now a strong power. In this year on April 1st, they conducted a huge maritime parade, trying to build up their confidence, saying they can dominate the situation in the South China Sea. It is not only about showing muscle, but it is proof that China has now stood up. I would use the three words, RMA. 20 years ago when China learned this this concept; ‘military revolution of military affairs’ from the United States, they have much improved with their technology and their military build up and they have sped up their military power. Now we understand the RMB, because they can dominate the market. But what we cannot accept is RMC; regional military conflict. Thank-you.

MR ANDREW BOWIE MP: On that note, I would like to thank our panel for giving up their time this evening. We are 45 minutes over when we should of finished so I would like to thank everybody for a fascinating and enlightening evening. I think everyone in this room would agree that the international rules based order is under threat more than it has been in generations, so I would in particularly like to thank the Henry Jackson Society for organising this evening, because in a world that gets so distracted by confirmation hearings and the gossip that surrounds the Brexit negotiations, this is an issue that is vitally important to the geopolitical situation that we find ourselves in, and events like this where we are able to debate openly and hear from such enlightened people that we have got up here today is very important. Thank-you very much everybody.



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