- Chinese Ambassador Liu Xiaoming rejected the statement by the Royal Navy that they would be maintaining international law regarding freedom of navigation.
- The new British aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, would be sent to the South China Sea on her first operational deployment.
- Experts believe Brexit is forcing Britain to pivot to the American position on the South China Sea.
China warned Britain not to enter the South China Sea to sail near disputed islands, saying that it constitutes “hostile behavior,” and implied that Beijing would be forced to make a military response. The Chinese ambassador in London said that Britain “should not do this dirty job for somebody else.”
Speaking at the Defense Reporters Association in London, Chinese Ambassador Liu Xiaoming rejected the statement by the Royal Navy that they would be maintaining international law regarding freedom of navigation. According to Sky News, Liu said that the South China Sea is big enough— an open sea area with an area of 3 million square kilometers— and there is no problem in free sailing. China does not object to anyone sailing there, but vessels cannot enter Chinese territorial waters within 12 nautical miles.
Anglo-American “Special Relationship” and the South China Sea
In February last year, British Defense Minister Gavin Williamson said that the United Kingdom must be prepared to use “hard power” to deter adversaries. The new British aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, would be sent to the South China Sea on her first operational deployment.
According to Sky News, the military attache of the Chinese Embassy, who participated in the activities of the Defense Reporters Association with the Chinese ambassador, said, “if the United States and the United Kingdom jointly challenge or violate China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it will constitute hostilities.” The British government responded that the United Kingdom opposes the “militarization” of the South China Sea and insists that the British aircraft carrier will still visit the South Pacific in 2021. A British government spokesman told Sky News that the navigation of the international navy in the South China Sea is normal, and the Royal Navy is no exception.
Chinese think tank experts believe that Britain has no special position on the issue of competition in the South China Sea, and generally expresses its concern about the South China Sea issue within the EU framework. However, since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the UK has abandoned its policy of not holding a position on the South China Sea issue and began to express its high profile to maintain freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. In 2017, the foreign minister, now Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said that the first action of the British aircraft carrier was to go to the South China Sea for cruising.
At the beginning of 2018, two British frigates and an amphibious assault ship entered the Asia Pacific waters and crossed the Vietnamese Sea several times. The British amphibious assault ship entered the waters of the Xisha Islands in China without notice, causing protests in Beijing.
Liu Jin, a European expert at the China Institute of International Studies, believes that the main reason for Britain’s policy of changing the South China Sea is the pressure brought by Brexit. Because Britain’s diplomatic choices have narrowed after Brexit, the special relationship between Britain and the United States has become more important, so it is more susceptible to political pressure from the United States. Liu Jin believes that the UK’s active involvement in the South China Sea issue is a move toward the US South China Sea policy, with the aim of strengthening the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States.
Free navigation” to China’s approval?
The Nansha Islands and the Xisha Islands are located on the main channel of the South China Sea and have important strategic significance. However, China, Vietnam and the Philippines have sovereignty disputes here.
The US Navy often conducts “free sailing” in the South China Sea and challenges China’s territorial position in the South China Sea. Washington accused Beijing of illegally building military facilities on the South China Sea islands, but China referred to this as an overbearing provocation from the Americans.