The South China Sea and British Strategy

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2019-09-20 | James Bosbotinis

The United Kingdom’s growing engagement with the South China Sea and wider Indo-Pacific reflects long-standing British interests, and the ever-increasing strategic importance of the region. Moreover, the UK’s (eventual) departure from the European Union (EU) has prompted the development of a renewed ‘Global Britain’ posture, that is outward-looking with global reach and influence, and ‘championing the rules-based system’. The UK has trading, diplomatic, military and historic connections to the region, highlighted by the presence of Commonwealth allies – Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam, and alliance obligations via the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, comprising the UK, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. In addition, the shifting global balance of power from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, in particular with regard to the region’s economic importance, emphasises the requirement to maintain a presence and contribute to regional security and stability. The then-head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, stated in this regard in 2017 that: ‘The Indo-Pacific region contains 2 of the 3 largest economies in the world, and 5 of the largest 16. If the UK does wish to forge new global trading partnerships, this is somewhere we need to be’. The scope and nature of such a presence is however, subject to much debate.

British Interests in the South China Sea and Wider Indo-Pacific

Before examining Britain’s specific interests in the South China Sea and wider Indo-Pacific, a brief discussion of the UK’s strategic context is required. This is in order to shed light on the rationale for and drivers of British strategy. The defining feature of Britain’s strategic context is geographic, that is, Britain’s position as an island. Professor Colin Gray described the British position in the following terms:

Britain is a maritime medium power whose security and prosperity requires unimpeded maritime access and transit. As a maritime trading country, Britain requires good order at sea. Britain’s maritime geography, indeed insularity, mandates primary economic and strategic significance for the country’s ability to use the seas. This is not discretionary. It is not an open issue for policy choice. The geopolitical, hence geostrategic, context for British security is both global and (broadly) Atlantic. It is not narrowly European.

Further, as Professor Geoffrey Till explains: ‘Whether we like it or not, we are part of a global trading system. What happens in distant parts of the world, sooner or later affects us here, and often to a much greater extent than it does most other countries.’ Till defines three types of threat to the international trading system, which require ‘a policy of defending trade and the conditions for trade’:

Disorder ashore and at sea, especially in areas that produce crucial commodities, through which critical transportation routes run or which have clear links to British security and/or prosperity. Inter-state war. The disruptions to the world economy that a US-China conflict over Taiwan would have are unimaginable. The threats of this are currently low, but we need to help keep them so. Deliberate attack by forces, both state and non-state, hostile to the intentions, values and outcomes of globalisation.

Due to its dependence on the global trading system, Britain does not have one specific regional focus. In this regard, Till suggests that: ‘…we need to focus our national attention and our national resources on the places that matter, the Gulf (resources), the Far East (trade) and Africa (resources) not on places that sadly don’t’.The campaigns in Iraq and particularly Afghanistan in the first decade or so of the 21st century, together with the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis and 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review significantly reduced Britain’s ability to maintain a presence in the Indo-Pacific, although this is now being addressed. As Till explains, the UK has retained the foundation for a regional presence, highlighted by ‘…the Five Power Defence Arrangements, the “Five Eyes” relationship especially with Australia and New Zealand, the continuing deployment to Brunei and … the small oiling facility at Sembawang in Singapore’.  

What is the strategic rationale for a presence in the South China Sea and wider Indo-Pacific? The UK has significant economic, military-strategic and diplomatic interests in the region, together with its broader importance to the global trading system. In economic terms, as John Hemmings and James Rogers explain, the South China Sea is ‘…the primary trade corridor connecting Europe and East Asia. Though the British Isles are still some distance from the waterway, nearly 12% of UK seaborne trade – £97 billion in imports and exports – passes through the South China Sea each year…’. Six of the UK’s top 25 trading partners (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and South Korea) are located within the Indo-Pacific, whilst Southeast Asia is the UK’s third largest non-EU export market and third biggest market for defence exports. China is the UK’s third largest source of imports and third biggest export market, as of April 2019. Further, the UK is considering accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (comprising Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam), following its withdrawal from the EU. Moreover, the UK Ministry of Defence’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) forecasts that ‘The East Asian share of the [sic] global trade is estimated to increase from 22% in 2015 to 29% in 2050’. The geo-economic importance of the region was described in 2010 by DCDC in the following terms:

…The region from Hong Kong in the North, through South East Asia into Australia…. The region sits astride the global trade routes of the Malacca and Lombok Straits through which 20% of global oil production is transported, including 80% of China’s oil imports. Over 60% of global shipping travelling through these choke-points is destined for Chinese ports. Similarly, Japan imports over 80% of her energy needs along these routes. 

The long-term implications are described thus:

Southeast Asia will grow in importance globally, in large part because much of the world’s trade passes through strategic chokepoints within the Southeast Asian archipelago. All Indo-Pacific powers, including the US, China and India, are seeking to improve their influence within the region, and ASEAN can also expect an increasing level of engagement from non-regional partners, including the United Kingdom…Southeast Asia will remain critical to the Indo-Pacific power balance. 

Alongside the growing economic importance of the Indo-Pacific is its increasing strategic significance. This is especially highlighted by the rise of China as a global power, and the resurgence of great power competition. In February 2019, the then UK Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, stated with regard to the evolving strategic environment that:

In an era of ‘Great Power’ competition we cannot be satisfied simply protecting our own backyard. The UK is a global power with truly global interests. A nation with the fifth biggest economy on the planet. A nation with the world’s fifth biggest Defence budget and the second largest Defence exporter. And since the new Global Great Game will be played on a global playing field, we must be prepared to compete for our interests and our values far, far from home.

Responding to the shifting strategic environment will require the UK to: ‘build on our established relationship with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada as part of the Five Eyes. With Singapore and Malaysia in the Five Powers Defence Arrangement [sic]. With other ASEAN nations, with Japan, the Republic of Korea and India’. Further, this will necessitate ‘Considering what permanent presence we might need in areas including the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific to extend our global influence’. This builds on the December 2018 policy paper, Mobilising, Modernising & Transforming Defence: A Report on the Modernising Defence Programme, which declares with regard to the Indo-Pacific that:


The Pacific region is becoming ever more important to the UK, with growing trade links and regional security issues that have global implications. We will increase our presence in the region, through our bilateral relationships and the Five Eyes and Five Power Defence Arrangements groups. Together, we will stand up for the global rules, including freedom of navigation, that underpin our security and prosperity as an island trading nation. 

The FPDA, comprising Australia, Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore, reflects the confluence of Britain’s diplomatic, trading, military and historical interests; aside from Britain, the FPDA comprises former British colonies or dominions, and members of the Commonwealth – an oft-overlooked instrument of soft power– with the purpose of consulting in the event of a direct threat to either Malaysia or Singapore. New Zealand and Australia are also part of the Five Eyes alliance with the UK, Canada and the US. The UK and Australia are developing a closer bilateral military relationship, illustrated particularly by Australia’s decision to procure the Type 26 Global Combat Ship as its next frigate – the Hunter-class, which will also serve as the Royal Navy’s new City-class. Military interoperability will be further served through the UK and Australia both operating the F-35, P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, and E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft. The 10th Australia-UK Ministerial Meeting (AUKMIN) Joint Ministerial Statement announced in this regard that: ‘As demonstrated by the selection of a British design for Australia’s Hunter Class frigates, the interoperability of our military forces continues to expand. We will continue to deepen our Anti-Submarine Warfare Strategic Partnership’. More broadly, the UK and Australia committed to:

…work together to promote prosperity, peace, openness and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific region. North Korea’s illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programmes remain a threat to the region and beyond. We will maintain pressure until North Korea takes concrete, irreversible and verifiable steps towards complete denuclearisation. We have strengthened security engagement in this region through bilateral and multilateral joint exercises and enforcement of UNSC Resolutions sanctioning North Korea. In 2018, our armed forces will continue to conduct exercises alongside the other members of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). We will seek opportunities for deeper maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

With regard to the South China Sea, the Ministerial Statement announced:

We remain committed to freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). We support an effective Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea that reinforces the rights of all states under UNCLOS and respects the interests of non-parties to the CoC. The CoC should reinforce existing regional architecture and strengthen parties’ commitments to cease actions that would complicate or escalate territorial disputes, including militarisation. We urge all parties to refrain from any actions which raise tensions and hinder the chances of peaceful settlement of the disputes.

The UK is also developing a close relationship with Japan, highlighted by a 2017 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, which announced that: ‘Japan and the UK will strengthen cooperation globally, and particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, conscious of its importance to global security and prosperity. Based on such common understanding, Japan and the UK will strengthen our cooperation and partnership vis-à-vis common strategic challenges to the rules-based international system’. The Declaration includes strengthening defence cooperation through potential joint exercises, support for an enhanced UK ‘security engagement’ in the Indo-Pacific, providing mutual logistic, technical and professional support, and closer defence equipment and technology cooperation. In this regard, in March 2019, HMS Montrose, a Type 23 frigate, visited Japan and engaged in a trilateral anti-submarine warfare exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and US Navy. This marked the second trilateral exercise undertaken with the US and Japan, the first occurring in December 2018 when HMS Argyll, also a Type 23 frigate, undertook a joint exercise with Japanese helicopter carrier Izumo, a US Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine and P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. 

The joint statements issued under the auspices of the Australia-UK Ministerial Meeting and the Japan-UK Joint Declaration highlights a commitment to the rules-based order. This is a central and recurring theme through British statements concerning the Indo-Pacific and international system more generally. The National Security Capability Review states:

The rules-based system we helped to develop has enabled global cooperation to protect shared fundamental values of respect for human dignity, human rights, freedom, democracy and equality. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a leading contributor to NATO, a European country sharing fundamental values with our partners and a champion of the Commonwealth, we are committed to upholding and renewing the rules-based international system. 

Countering threats to the rules-based order is thus a major priority for UK strategy. In May 2019, the then-head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Philip Jones stated in this regard:

…the continual erosion we are seeing of the rules that govern the international system – the system that has for so long provided the basis for our security and prosperity especially through what has become known as ‘grey zone’ activity, but we in the Ministry of Defence will perhaps more accurately describe that as activity that sees a perpetual state of conflict where actions are just below the threshold of traditional conventional conflict but nevertheless pose a significant challenge.

Referring to the implications of the disputes in the South China Sea, Admiral Philip Jones stated:

Now, there are those who would question why a territorial dispute half a world away matters in the UK. But I would say that UNCLOS is one of those cornerstones of international peace and security that provides a neutral mechanism to allocate the world’s maritime resources. And if we allow UNCLOS to be undermined in one area, wherever that area may be, whatever the case may be, it will be weakened everywhere.

The result would be: ‘a world where countries feel free to ignore international treaties which don’t suit them and then of course no agreement is safe: international order and international security could easily begin to break down’. In this context, Rear Admiral (retired) Bruce Williams has posed the question: ‘…are we slipping into a “Lord Palmerston world” where national self-interests are all that count or should collective interest and defending a rules-based system remain pre-eminent in our thinking?’ Responding to this challenge, as argued by Admiral Sir Philip Jones, emphasises: ‘…the importance of a maritime strategy for the UK, one that is inherently global in outlook and one that seeks to preserve the rules based order…’. This requires, with specific reference to the Indo-Pacific, as articulated by the then-Secretary of State for Defence, Penny Mordaunt, at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2019:

The UK knows that to be a reliable global partner we can have no half-hearted measures, and we are committed to being a reliable partner to you all. That is why our engagement across the region is underpinned by our support for fundamental global values: human rights, democracy and respect for the rules-based international order… For Global Britain, that means first and foremost that we need to be present and that our presence must be persistent, not opportunistic. That is why we have seen the Royal Navy maintain an almost unbroken presence in the region over the last 12 months and why that will continue in the future, and will include our new flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, in one of her first operational deployments in a couple of years’ time.


The Nature and Role of a British Regional Presence

The development of an enhanced and persistent regional presence will build upon existing arrangements, including the FPDA, the British Defence Staff and naval logistics facility in Singapore and the Brunei-based jungle warfare school and battalion of Gurkhas. Moreover, the UK intends to establish a military base in the Indo-Pacific ‘within the next couple of years’. It has been reported that the new base is likely to be in either Singapore or Brunei, although as Till suggests:

…some local logistic support is necessary but nothing like the old Singapore ‘base’ which would be ruinously expensive, politically highly controversial and operationally completely unnecessary. Instead the British, like other navies, not least the Chinese, seek enhanced facilities such as they have completed in Bahrain and just agreed at Duqm in Oman where ships can be refuelled, routine maintenance conducted and crews rested or rotated.

Conversely, the UK could seek to establish a more substantial presence, as argued by Alessio Patalano:

…a robust discussion should take place as to whether to reestablish [sic] the forward deployment of British military capabilities in the region and develop together with it a series of base access agreements in addition to current arrangements in Singapore and Brunei. One key issue to explore is whether and to what extent Australia would be a natural launching pad for a forward deployed UK force – especially as the country has signed up to re-introduce British built capabilities at the heart of its future fleet. Japan could also be considered as another close partner that could afford significant logistical support for a British presence in the Northeast Asian sector given its close military ties with the United States and the development of a trilateral partnership with the UK.

It is likely that maritime forces will be central to an increased presence in the Indo-Pacific. In his February 2019 speech, Gavin Williamson confirmed that HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s new 65,000-ton aircraft carrier embarking the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B strike fighter, will deploy to the Pacific as part of its first operational deployment in 2021. In addition, Williamson announced that a Littoral Strike Group, centred on a new Littoral Strike Ship with escorts, support vessels and helicopters would be based in the Indo-Pacific. A flexible maritime posture, centred on forward-deployed ships potentially including an amphibious vessel and surface combatants such as a Type 26 or Type 31 light frigate, with the occasional deployment of more substantive forces, for example, a carrier strike group, would serve to reassure and support allies whilst simultaneously deterring potential adversaries. It warrants mention that a UK Carrier Strike Group, that is, a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier potentially embarking up to 36 F-35s, with accompanying surface combatants including Type 45 Daring-class anti-air warfare destroyers, Type 26 City-class anti-submarine warfare frigates, an Astute-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, and support vessels, would provide a highly potent force. The UK could also look to deploy land-based airpower to the region, either on a permanent basis or for training and exercise activity with regional allies. 

The role of a UK presence would be, as Patalano suggests:

In a context of increasing pressure on regional actors in this part of the world to ‘pick a side’ in the tensions between the United States and China as a result of the political and military assertion of the latter, the UK can play a stabilizing role. It can politically support allies, reassure partners, and signal and deter competitors.

In this context, alongside the UK’s traditional FPDA allies, the US, and partners such as Japan, utilising an enhanced regional presence to engage with China in confidence-building measures would be valuable. This is especially due to the contrast in perspectives between London (and Washington) and Beijing on freedom of navigation and sovereignty in the South China Sea. This point was emphasised by Admiral Tim Fraser, the UK Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, in a session on maritime security at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue:

I will start with the sort of maritime China policy, and you asked about the characterisation of the relationship. I think it has opportunity. I think we already have a number of engagements in areas where we are talking about various things. Our fleet commander was recently at the 70th anniversary of the PLA Navy and had discussions there, and I think we have to keep those dialogues open. We had a good session just before this session with the Chinese delegation, to keep open that dialogue. But, of course, there are differences in, call it interpretation or our understanding. We are really clear that the UK has a right to a presence in the South China Seas, re-emphasising the points I made right at the start about the global commons, international and interlinked trade. And therefore, we should be there. We have also got a clear understanding of UNCLOS, and in terms of how that applies to the islands. And therefore, we reserve the right to enforce our understanding of that through the reactions that we take

Admiral Fraser added, highlighting the importance of dialogue:

…I think that is an area of contention. I think it is one we have got to work through…we have to get into some of the detail to expose some of these issues for what they are and address them and come to where we can work closely together. The mechanisms, I think, we have just got to work through and I am a big believer in dialogue in terms of avoiding miscalculation. Because as the tension can sometimes ratchet up, and the rhetoric, it is really important that the military aspects, in particular, there have opportunities to make sure that that is not made worse by a miscalculation or misunderstanding. 

The ability of the UK to sustain an enhanced presence in the Indo-Pacific has been questioned, and whether it is the most effective use of limited resources. As Geoffrey Till notes:

Nor is Southeast Asia the only area in which the UK has an interest it needs to signal. Russian truculence in European waters and the growing importance of the Far North and the Arctic demand a countervailing attention and will remain the top strategic priority. The Mediterranean, the Gulf, the Caribbean and the South Atlantic matter too.

Although as Patalano notes, the Indo-Pacific region is relevant to countering Russia: ‘The value of accessing bases in Japan would also… offer an opportunity to monitor Russian activities’. The diminished size of the Royal Navy’s surface combatant force, a direct decision of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, which despite it being agreed during the review process that 23 destroyers and frigates were required, reduced the size of the force from 23 to 19, is a particular constraint. The 2015 National Security and Strategic Defence and Security Review announced the intention to increase overall surface combatant numbers, albeit not till the 2030s, with construction of the Type 31 light frigate. In 2017, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, noted ‘With a growing navy, it would be perfectly possible to base Type 31e frigates in South East Asia…’.

Given the UK’s global interests and the national policy intent to maintain the ability to project power and influence globally, as enshrined in the Global Britain vision, the issue of commitments versus resources will become even more pressing. Unless the UK is prepared to reduce or abandon its commitments in one area in order to enhance its presence elsewhere, which would be damaging to credibility and not consistent with the Global Britain vision, an increase in the defence budget will be necessary. The UK Parliament’s House of Commons Defence Committee has called for the Defence budget to be increased from its current 2 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent. In this context, circumstances, for example, a deterioration in security in Europe or the Middle East, may prompt a scaling back of plans for an enhanced Indo-Pacific presence. 

Further, as Li Jie Sheng highlights, there does not appear to be consensus within the British government on policy toward China and by extension, the wider region: ‘…there is not a whole-of-government approach toward the region, with the Treasury and DIT [Department for International Trade] favoring friendly relations with China for trade and financial links. This is contrasted with the MOD and perhaps Foreign Office…’. This is highlighted, for example, by reported disagreements between then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and the Chancellor (finance minister) Philip Hammond over the former’s statement regarding the potential deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific, and the subsequent cancellation of a visit by the latter to China. The planned deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region in 2021 was, as mentioned above, repeated by Penny Mordaunt, at the June 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue.



The development of an enhanced British role and presence in the Indo-Pacific reflects both long-standing interests, for example, the FPDA and Five Eyes groupings, and the security of the maritime and wider global trading system, together with the growing strategic importance of the region. Moreover, the Global Britain vision effectively marks a return to a more traditional strategic posture, rather than the more narrowly-focused outlook of the late 196os onward. The then-Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, stated in this regard: ‘For so long - literally for decades - so much of our national view point has actually been coloured by a discussion about the European Union. This is our moment to be that true global player once more…’. It warrants emphasising that British thinking toward the Indo-Pacific is, as Till points out, ‘…far from being a harking back to the old days is a response to some very modern realities and developments’. This is highlighted by the shifting global balance of power from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, emphasised by the latter’s economic importance and the rise of China as a global power. For the UK, the Indo-Pacific is of major economic importance and thus, any disruption to regional security and therefore the conditions of trade, would be damaging to British interests.

The challenge for British strategy toward the Indo-Pacific will be developing a persistent, credible presence that provides reassurance and support to allies, whilst deterring potential adversaries, yet does not result in misunderstanding or miscalculation. This is especially with regard to China-UK relations, where there are differences in perspective, particularly toward freedom of navigation and sovereignty in the South China Sea but also a growing economic relationship. In this context, maintaining a dialogue will be key, including between UK allies and China, and to mitigate the pressure on regional states to choose between Beijing or Washington. The central role of naval forces in providing a regional presence may be valuable. Although the Royal Navy has undertaken actions which have been seen as provocative by China, notably the transit by HMS Albion, through the Paracel/Xisha Islands in August 2018, a more persistent British naval presence could be utilised for confidence-building with the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Such a military-to-military relationship could contribute to both the bilateral China-UK relationship, and regional security. Ultimately, for the UK, the principal strategic challenge will be achieving a balance between the competing requirements of defending the rules-based order, relations with Washington, relations with regional partners, and developing a pragmatic relationship with Beijing. Given the growing strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific, a trend likely to continue in the long-term, credible engagement with the region will be a key priority for the UK as long as it seeks to remain a global actor. Despite resource constraints, and competing visions over the future role of the UK, there are the foundations in place for an enhanced presence in the Indo-Pacific, together with consistent thinking on the nature of and objectives for such a role. Barring a strategic shock, it is likely that the UK will in the coming years, develop a more active regional posture in the Indo-Pacific.  

James Bosbotinis

Dr James Bosbotinis is a specialist in defence and international affairs. He has particular expertise in the study of contemporary maritime strategy, assessing naval and air force developments, geopolitical analysis, and generating understanding of the connections between maritime strategy and national policy. Dr Bosbotinis has extensive experience encompassing academic and policy-relevant research and analysis for a range of customers, including UK government bodies. He has written widely on issues including the development of British maritime strategy, maritime airpower, Russian maritime doctrine, naval and wider military (including nuclear) modernisation, and China’s evolving strategy. Dr Bosbotinis is the Book Reviews Editor for The Naval Review (the UK’s professional journal for the Royal Navy), a member of the Defence IQ Advisory Board, an Associate Member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies, King’s College London, and the co-CEO of JB Associates, a geopolitical risk advisory.