The US research agency Stratfor has forecast that “the United States will solidify its naval presence in the South China Sea and continue building up defence and economic ties along China's periphery from Taiwan to Southeast Asia,” and given the all-embracing belligerence that seems to envelope Washington, its analysts are probably right. There are few countries or international accords that are not targeted by the malevolence of a president who declared at his inauguration that “it’s going to be only America first, America first” and whose disciples applaud his erratic lurches from truculent insults to maudlin self-pity.
In November 2017 Trump visited Vietnam and “called for all South China Sea claimants to clarify and comport their maritime claims in accordance with the international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] and to implement their international legal obligations in good faith in managing or resolving these disputes.”
The main problem about this self-satisfied drivel is that, as Voice of America reported in 2016, “the US has not accepted UNCLOS because of opposition from Republicans in the Senate, where treaties must be approved by a two-thirds' vote.” And in 2018 the Congress is still controlled by Republicans and they still haven’t agreed to ratify the Convention. Why should they? It goes against everything that Washington stands for in the way of America First, which sentiment excludes anything at all that might commit the US to international law.
So the Pentagon continues to send nuclear-capable bombers and missile-equipped warships and electronic warfare aircraft around and over the South China Sea, to make it clear to China that the most important thing to Washington in the region is its military domination of China’s coast. The most recent confrontational activity was three months ago when the US Navy’s Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser, and the Higgins guided-missile destroyer were sent to try to provoke Chinese reaction by operating within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands. They didn’t just pass through the Paracels : they conducted tactical manoeuvres among the islets, but this didn’t prevent a spokesman for the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet telling Time magazine, presumably without a smirk on his face, that the operations “are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements.”
Britain, which is roughly the same distance from the South China Sea as America (10,000 km as against 12,000 km) decided to join Washington in making political statements by sending HMS Albion, an Amphibious Assault Ship of Britain’s Royal Navy to mimic US antics in the region.
Albion is impressive-looking but is not a combat vessel, because its mission is simply to deliver troops and equipment to a previously secured landing area. But off it went to the South China Sea to sail along and conduct a so-called ‘freedom of navigation exercise’ on August 31 in the waters round the Paracel Islands, which the Brits declared was “in full compliance with international law.”
On June 27, a month after the last US Navy venture against China and two months before the UK’s Royal Navy was ordered by its government to imitate the US ships’ fandangos, China’s ambassador to Britain noted that there was no problem with freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and that “The reality is that more than 100,000 merchant ships pass through these waters every year and none has ever run into any difficulty with freedom of navigation. Despite some disputes between China and some of its neighbours, maintaining stability in the South China Sea has been a matter of consensus for all the countries in this region. The overall situation has been stable, thanks to the joint efforts of all the regional partners.”
There was absolutely no need for a British warship to sail close to any of the islands where China has for decades had a large presence. On its way to Vietnam from Japan, the Albion had no reason whatever to pass close to any of the Paracels. It could have sailed more directly from Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh City with no problem at all — and it would have used less fuel. But the UK government authorised the Navy’s spokesman to declare that “HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.”
The object of the operation was to try to provoke China to take action against yet another instance of foreign military coat-trailing in a region in which Britain has no territorial claims and no local alliances. It was following Washington’s policy of trying to irritate China, and in this it succeeded, although it was most unwise to do so.
When Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May was in Beijing in January 2018, one of her more important observations was that her visit would “intensify the golden era in UK-China relations.” And a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said Beijing saw Mrs May's trip as “an opportunity to achieve new development of the China-UK global comprehensive strategic partnership.” It seemed at the time that bilateral relations were at least practical, and could even progress to the commercially cordial.
There were, after all, trade deals agreed worth some 9 billion pounds, and PM May declared that as “the UK is preparing to leave the European Union we’re seizing the opportunity to become an ever-more outward-looking Global Britain, deepening our trade relations with nations around the world — including China.”
But Mrs May was sadly mistaken if she imagined for one moment that a “golden era” of Sino-UK relations would be welcomed by China after her silly and totally needless aggravation in the South China Sea. On September 7 the Chinese reaction to Britain’s “freedom of navigation” frolic was “Britain’s actions were wrong. They clearly violated the consensus and spirit put forward by Britain’s leadership that they wished to build a golden era in ties with China. This certainly will unfavourably influence the further development of the China-Britain relationship.”
The China-UK trade balance is in China’s favour, but Britain needs China much more than China needs Britain — and this will be especially so when the UK exits the European Union, which will engage further and more deeply with China in many ways.
Just as in its relations with Russia, it would serve Britain better to cease posturing and try moderation with China. It is very easy, and no doubt enjoyable in a juvenile way, to leap up and down and insult other countries, but it is wiser to be restrained and balanced. What happens in the South China Sea is nothing to do with Britain, which has plenty of Brexit problems on its plate without looking for more complications.