South China Sea: Post-Brexit Britain ‘important military power’ and ‘serious’ player

Bill Hayton: Tensions in South China Sea will have 'major' economic impact

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Tension in the contested region has ramped up in recent months as Bejing has warned the US and UK over their military activities in the South China Sea. British and American warships have challenged China’s sovereignty claims over the disputed waters by sailing through the area. Last month Royal Navy officers carried out drills with their Singaporean counterparts in the South China Sea, while the UK’s Carrier Strike Group transited the area en route to Japan.

Since the UK left the EU last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has placed “Global Britain” at the centre of his foreign and defence policy.

Despite cutting ties with Brussels, Britain’s global defensive role as a bulwark against China must not be underestimated, according to Dr Jonathan Sullivan from the University of Nottingham.

The China specialist and political scientist told “The UK post-Brexit is searching for a new global role.

“Some of the ‘Global Britain’ discourse I’m sure is rooted in empire nostalgia and hubris, but the UK is a major economy and important military power, so we have to take it seriously.”

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The Government’s ‘Integrated Review’ published this year highlighted China’s “increasing international assertiveness”, including its influence in the Indo-Pacific, as the “most significant geopolitical factor in the world today”.

Dr Sullivan explained how in the South China Sea, Britain has aligned itself with the loose ‘Quad’ coalition of Australia, India, Japan and the US, as well as the Five Eyes Intelligence-sharing alliance.

However, he also warned Britain’s military activities in the region may complicate London’s ambitions to continue doing business with Beijing.

He said: “The Integrated Review from March made clear that the UK is seeking a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific, and the recent Navy deployment is an embodiment of that.

“The UK is positioning itself with the US and other democracies to balance China’s growing assertiveness in Asia – China’s backyard – through the Quad, Five Eyes and other co-operations with the US, Australia and India.

“At the same time, it is also not done trying to secure trade deals and investment with China.

“Those two strands of Global Britain are incompatible, as China reminds us on a daily basis.

“We don’t currently have an explicit China policy, but instead we have this equivocal, ‘two faced’ – not necessarily a pejorative – approach to China that is extremely difficult to pull off.”


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The Integrated Review specifically highlighted the South China Sea as a maritime choke point where there is “growing tension.”

It also said: “The significant impact of China’s military modernisation and growing international assertiveness within the Indo-Pacific region and beyond will pose an increasing risk to UK interests.”

China says it has jurisdiction over the whole South China Sea, a claim that is disputed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, which all have counterclaims.

Beijing has angered its neighbours by constructing artificial reefs, islands and runways in the South China Sea.

From last year into 2021, China has also ramped up its military activity in the sea by holding drills, sparking fears among experts it may be gearing up for conflict.

One such potential flashpoint could be Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway Chinese province that will one day be reunified with the mainland.

The self-governing island democracy has said that dozens of Chinese military aircraft have flown through its air defence identification zone this year.
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