Gavin Williamson, the British defense secretary, has recently revealed that Britain has taken part in ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the South China Sea. This will certainly highlight a significant revival of British interest in Asian security after four years in which no Royal Navy ship visited the Asia-Pacific. Now, by sailing Royal Navy ships through the South China Sea, the UK government is showing that it supports the rules that have prevented superpower conflict for over 70 years.
Mr. Williamson also told the international security conference in Singapore known as the ‘Shangri La Dialogue’ that HMS Albion and HMS Sutherland sailed through parts of the South China Sea to which China is attempting to restrict access. HMS Albion navigated through the Spratly Islands in early May on its way from Brunei to Japan. It is not yet clear where HMS Sutherland sailed but it has recently transited from Japan to Singapore through the same region.
China has recently been attempting to close off the access to a great part of the South China Sea for foreign military vessels. This action would reverse decades of international consensus, risking that the world will be reverting to an era in which navies had to fight their way through blockades and when seaborne trade, the lifeblood of the global economy, was subject to the whims of coastal states. So, by sailing through the Spratly Islands, UK is not only pushing back China’s attempts to close off these waters, but it is also standing up for freedom of navigation around the whole world.
Up until now, it was entirely legal for naval ships from any country to sail through even the most hotly disputed regions, since countries only ‘own’ the sea up to 12 nautical miles from their coast. As said in article 24 of UNCLOS: ‘The coastal State shall not hamper the innocent passage of foreign ships through the territorial sea.’ And this law applies everywhere. This right, among many others, was acknowledged by almost every country in the world in 1982, so this is not only the concern of the British government, but also a concern of every country that signed this document. China is trying to undermine an international agreement by unilaterally acting against its provisions.
Moreover, ten years after it agreed to UNCLOS, China approved its 1992 ‘Law on the Territorial Sea’, which directly contradicts it. The law states that ‘foreign ships for military purposes shall be subject to approval by the Government of the People’s Republic of China for entering the territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China’. Then, when China ratified UNCLOS four years later, it asserted an opt-out from the ‘innocent passage’ provisions, requiring that a foreign state ‘obtain advance approval from or give prior notification for the passage of its warships through the territorial sea’.
On the one hand, China is making demands on other countries that it does not itself respect in other parts of the globe. Even in July 2017, when three Chinese naval vessels, including a Type-052D guided missile destroyer, sailed through the English Channel, nobody objected. This is what freedom of navigation is all about. This is a critical test for what has become known as the rules-based international order. Governments are supposed to stick to international agreements, not undermine them. By sailing through the South China Sea wherever international law allows, HMS Albion and HMS Sutherland are showing that the British government supports the rules that have prevented superpower conflict for over 70 years, and if China wants to be respected in the world, it should honor these laws as well.
‘Britain Is Right to Stand Up to China Over Freedom of Navigation’ – Expert Comment by Bill Hayton – Chatham House / The Royal Institute of International Affairs.