Risks or rewards? The Royal Navy in the South China Sea

HMS Sutherland, currently in Australia and on a tour of the Western Pacific, will conduct a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea at some point before she returns home. Sister ship HMS Argyll, will also be sent to the region in the later part of 2018. Here we examine the context and motives for these deployments.

Welcome to the most disputed waters on the planet

Under the normal United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) every nation has the right to claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) out to 200 miles from its coast. Where the EEZ overlaps with another nation, a maritime boundary that divides the territory in an equitable manner is usually agreed. The EEZ gives the right for that nation to extract mineral and natural resources but it does not have sovereignty over the waters, which are open to all shipping. Only the waters that extend 12 miles from an inhabited coast are sovereign territorial waters.

The South China Sea (SCS) is undoubtedly a major potential flashpoint for future global conflict, with six nations making complex and competing for claims over a series of islands and overlapping EEZs. The SCS competition is the most extreme example of growing global tensions over exploiting the oceans as populations expand with an insatiable demand for resources. SCS sea is a tempting prize, rich in oil, minerals and fishing grounds. Optimistic Chinese estimates suggest there are 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that could be extracted. Control over these waters also amounts to enormous strategic power because nearly a third of world’s maritime trade, estimated at around £3.8 trillion per year, is carried on ships passing through the SCS.

Territorial claims in the South China Sea. Note the huge red loop that denotes the Chinese claim. (Click for enlarged version) Image: deedavee via Flickr.

Scattered across the SCS are many inhabited islands and reefs of which China has made absurdly inflated claims of ownership. The claim is based on a historical document with little validity, the so-called ‘9-dash line’ which encircles almost 90% of the entire SCS, extending up to 1,200 miles from the Chinese mainland. In a ruling ignored by the Chinese, an international tribunal unanimously rejected the claim as unlawful. Even if China owned these rocks, because they are uninhabited, they would come with no associated territorial waters or EEZ. This is a very different scenario to, for example, the dispute over the Falkland Islands which has had an indigenous population, loyal to Britain, since 1833.

China already has a legal EEZ of 877,019 km2 but claims a total of 3,000,000 Km2. Further claims over islands in the East China Sea are putting it in direct conflict with its oldest rival, Japan. The Trump administration is pursuing a tough stance with China and nations in Asia are increasingly polarised. Some are aligning with China while others are joining ‘the quad’ which includes the US, Japan India and Australia in an alliance specifically to contain China. The UK has long-established ties with these 4 nations and is committed to the upholding of the ‘rules-based-order’ which inevitably put it at odds with the world’s newest superpower.

To complicate matters, in the last decade China has been reclaiming land around strategic islands and reefs and constructing ports, air bases, radar installations and barracks. At what must be enormous expense and inflicting considerable environmental damage, this foothold allows China to claim they are now ‘inhabited’. The vast militarisation project is now effectively a fait accompli, which no one has been able or willing to prevent. These bases offer control of the seas around them as ‘unsinkable aircraft carriers’ and surveillance outposts, putting at risk any naval force that should enter the SCS, even before taking into account the threat from the aggressively-expanding Chinese navy.

Winning the global power competition

The Chinese military has grown rapidly with modern equipment, much of which is derived from a programme of cyber-theft, reverse-engineering or purchasing the best foreign technology. It is not that the Chinese are incapable of innovation, just that if you are in a hurry to catch up and overtake your rivals it is quicker and easier to copy, especially if intellectual property is carelessly made accessible.

Apart from aircraft carriers, the PLAN is about to eclipse the US Navy in major surface combatant numbers.

Able to throw huge manpower and financial resources at any project, China’s totalitarian state can build up its military largely free from the constraints of public scrutiny, health & safety, workers rights or the effects of ‘pork barrel’ politics which slow democratic nations efforts. Even if Chinese defence spending figures were reliable, it makes comparisons with Western nations meaningless as they clearly get far more for the same money. Efficient Chinese shipyards are churning out modern warships for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) at a rate no one can compete with. While the US Navy is spread across the globe, for now at least, China keeps most of its naval forces closer to home with an overwhelming concentration of available firepower in the SCS. China has also built the largest Coastguard fleet in the world, now numbering over 1,000 vessels of various sizes. Some are heavily armed and it these vessels, rather than the PLAN, that have been involved in deadly confrontations with fishermen in disputed waters.

HMS Sutherland is the first RN visitor to Pacific region since HMS Daring in 2013. Warship arrivals in Sydney, Australia are always photogenic.

Ambassadors for ‘global Britain’

A Royal Navy visit to the Pacific region has many benefits. Part of the reason HMS Sutherland’s is in Australia is to display British anti-submarine prowess and equipment in an effort to persuade the RAN to purchase the Type 26 frigate design. The broader remit is to promote British diplomatic and trade interests in the region. Often dismissed as just an excuse for a cocktail party, receptions, presentations and meetings held onboard visiting warships can do a great deal to assist British interests and prestige through personal contact and dialogue. As Britain loosens ties with the EU, its political, commercial and military relationships in the Far East have greater importance, the RN is a vital ambassador as ‘brand Britain’ attempts to extend its reach.

The UK has long-standing ties with nations in the Pacific, particularly with Commonwealth nations and signatories of the five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA); Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. There is no binding obligation to defend each other like in NATO, rather a loose agreement to cooperate and consult each other in the event of aggression by another nation. Occasional visits by UK warships should not be mistaken for a signal that the RN can make a major contribution to the balance of forces in the region. The RN is simply too small and has higher priority commitments elsewhere to maintain a significant permanent presence. There is, however, great value in conducting naval exercises together, sharing ideas, doctrine and intelligence.

Britain certainly owes the United States a debt of gratitude for their wholehearted assistance in regenerating UK carrier strike capability. Some have suggested that sending more UK warships to the Pacific is a way to thank the Americans by endorsing their stand against China. From a military standpoint, a more effective way for the UK to assist might be to relieve the pressure on US forces by concentrating on containing the Russian threat closer to home or shouldering more responsibility in the Middle East.

Tweaking the dragon’s tail

Speaking while the ship was alongside in Sydney Australia, Commander Canale, CO HMS Sutherland said “I have to get from one part of the world to the other, by doing so I have to transit through the South China Sea — what I can say is whatever I choose to do will be in full compliance with international law,”

Like any warship passage through the SCS, HMS Sutherland is likely to be closely monitored by the Chinese. It is not clear if she will simply pass through or deliberately sail within 12nm of claimed ‘territorial waters’ belonging to one of the new artificial islands. US Navy destroyers have conducted several such legal FONOPs which drew stern rebukes from Beijing and heightened tensions. The Global Times which is a mouthpiece of the Chinese government has already advised Britain “should behave modestly when passing through the South China Sea.”

So far the Chinese have not reacted to any US Navy FONOPs with force. Despite their objections, they recognise that conflict in the SCS could cripple trade flows and devastate the world economy in which they have so much invested. For all sides, the stakes are high and the presence of single warships in disputed waters can be seen as about making a statement and unlikely to provoke shooting. The UK government does need to consider how it should react if, for example, the Chinese were to despatch coastguard ships to obstruct or interfere with the passage of HMS Sutherland. Alternatively, China may do nothing, recognising that valuable trading relationship with the UK is more important.

In 2016 UK exports to China were worth £16.8 billion while imports from China were £42.3 billion. For post-Brexit Britain looking to expand trade outside Europe, relationships with China have increasing importance. China’s neighbours face a similar dilemma, on the one hand, they need to protect their sovereignty in the face of military expansion, and on the other must remain engaged with Beijing, a primary commercial partner.

Further RN deployments in the SCS could have unintended consequences. China is making deals to gain access to a string of naval bases across Asia, Africa and into the Mediterranean. The PLAN already has the ships and ability to conduct replenishment at sea. With several aircraft carriers under construction, China will soon have the capability to project naval power on a global scale. How would Britain respond to a future FONOP by a Chinese carrier battle group in the North Sea? A scenario where the Chinese supply heavily subsidised warships and military aircraft to Argentina is not inconceivable.

Boris goes large

On 27th July 2017, speaking in Australia about the South China Sea The Foreign Secretary said: “One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is to send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area”. As most would recognise, not every pronouncement made by Boris Johnson is sensible or practical and his speech has the feel of off-the-cuff policymaking. Once fully operational, the QEC will certainly be powerful levers for government that will make a statement wherever they go. For that reason alone, where and how they are deployed should be considered especially carefully. Sending a carrier to the SCS is a bigger step up on the scale of escalation than the passage of a frigate and could to provoke a bigger response.

There is a plan for HMS Queen Elizabeth to conduct a ‘global deployment’ as soon as 2021 which could include a transit of the SCS.  For the transit of the SCS it must be hoped that US, and possibly Australian warships, may be added to the carrier group. QE is due to achieve Initial Operating Capability (Carrier Strike) in 2020 and by the following year, the number of F-35Bs available to equip the carrier would probably be a maximum of 10-12. The embarked F-35Bs will not yet be equipped with a full range of weaponry which has to be integrated over a period of several years. There would also have been a relatively short period for the ship’s company and aircrew to build up experience of fixed-wing carrier operations.

It must be assumed HMS Queen Elizabeth would be accompanied on her 2021 global deployment by at least one Type 45 destroyer, a frigate, an RFA and possibly an SSN.

Looking from a naval perspective, in 2021 QE will be a high profile target but not in the same league as a US aircraft carrier, both in terms of the power she can project or possessing the same level of self-protection. Students of Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu will note that he advised: “avoid strength, attack weakness”. Events in the next 3 years may be difficult to predict but China will undoubtedly become an even stronger naval and military power.

Efforts to encourage nations to adhere to international law should be applauded, appeasement can be a dangerous policy that pushes problems into the future. At the same time confronting an adversary where they are strongest may not be sound strategy or in our national interest. History tells us that Royal Navy warships deployed to the other side of the globe have achieved both incredible successes and suffered bloody defeats.

Consideration of what measures the UK may take to influence events in Asian waters should be planned with the exceptional thoroughness and be commensurate with our true naval strength.