South China Sea no place for foolish adventurism
By sailing a warship near islands China has built, Britain will just be following the US and going against its ‘golden era’ pledge and the need for cooperation
Beijing’s position on the contested waters of the South China Sea has been repeatedly made plain: peace and stability will be maintained. Its Southeast Asian neighbours, four with competing territorial claims, agree. Commercial and passenger shipping can pass through unhindered, as guaranteed by international agreements. Britain is therefore charting a peculiar course by following the United States’ lead in sailing a warship through the area next month in the name of “freedom of navigation”.
British defence secretary Gavin Williamson announced last week during a visit to Australia that the anti-submarine frigate HMS Sutherland would make the trip while returning to Europe from the southern hemisphere. He did not indicate whether the vessel would enter Chinese territorial waters by passing within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands China has built, as US warships have done.
But whether it does or not is irrelevant; the action is unnecessarily provocative, designed to show solidarity with military allies the US and Australia and stamp China as a rival. It is a confusing turnaround from earlier this month, when British Prime Minister Theresa May met President Xi Jinping in Beijing and pledged to build on a “golden era” in relations.
Beijing has understandably been taken aback by the plan to send the warship to its neighbourhood. But while the nation’s nationalistic state-run media have frothed at the decision, officials have reacted calmly, with the foreign ministry saying it hopes “relevant sides don’t create trouble out of nothing”. The announcement should not come as a surprise, after all, with British officials contending last year that such a mission would take place during 2018.
A third of the world’s trade passes through the South China Sea, but China has never challenged cargo or passenger vessels. Foreign naval vessels aimed at flexing military muscle and able to spy are quite another matter. Britain and the US should give up their foolish adventurism and instead look to the example set by Southeast Asian countries, which have agreed with China on a framework for a code of conduct so that mishaps at sea can be avoided. Cooperation, communication and consensus are the sensible approach.