By James Rogers
A fortnight ago HMS Argyll – one of the Royal Navy’s frigates – met up with USS McCampbell, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer from the United States Navy to undertake joint patrols and exercises in the South China Sea. This comes after the Royal Navy’s first Freedom of Navigation manoeuvre around the Paracel Islands on 31st August last year to contest the establishment by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of so-called “straight baselines”.
These straight baselines were initially designed to give archipelagic states the opportunity to link up their scattered insular territories. However, China, a large continental state, has also reserved the right to establish them. It has drawn a box around the outermost Paracel Islands, and asserted sovereignty over everything within. Challenging such underhand practices is essential if the rules-based international order is not to fall away under revisionist assertions.
But how does this matter to the United Kingdom (UK)? It could be argued that the South China Sea is a long way away from Britain and that – under tight budgetary pressures and with an aggressive Russia at NATO’s door – Britain should avoid such distant entanglements. However, such an argument is both myopic and parochial.
Despite America’s power and reach, the PRC is engaged in a long-term competition to replace it as the Indo-Pacific region’s pre-eminent country. What is more, the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative has as its final destination Europe: Chinese power will gradually creep around the underbelly of Eurasia until it reaches Britain. And as the asymmetry of power tilts in the PRC’s favour, the US will focus increasingly more on the Chinese challenge, while seeking help from its democratic allies – of which the UK, alongside Japan, is the most powerful – in support of the established order.
For this reason, the PRC should be shown that revisionism will never pay. Beijing’s unlawful and excessive claims must be undermined and the rules must be upheld. Consequently, the UK needs to develop its own Freedom of Navigation Policy, in cooperation with regional partners and allies. Over the coming years Britain – like many other Western nations – is also going to have to reinvest in its armed forces, and its navy in particular.