China’s relations with the United Kingdom have been a strained one in the recent past as both states have involved in a media war by lampooning each other. Britain openly criticized China’s new security law in Hong Kong as a draconian move to oppress its people and it was reciprocated by Beijing through harsh diplomatic statements. In the light of such uncertainties, Britain made one more step to accelerate the tension by declaring that its strongest and newest aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth may be deployed to the South China Sea in the coming months. It is by no means an action taken by Britain spontaneously as London is well aware of the subsequent results emerge from China, nevertheless, it seems that UK’s ambition of “Global Great Britain” agenda is rooted in aggrandizing its military strength in the sea.

The statement issued by Chinese Defence Military Spokesperson Tan Kefei is a clear indication of Beijing’s stances regarding the West’s presence in the South China Sea.  Kefei states that West should impede from sending warships to the South China Sea, vowing that China might retaliate. This news may provide a tense beginning for 2021 in a situation that the whole world is eagerly waiting to get rid of the encounters they suffered during 2020. However, in examining China’s tryst with the South China Sea that it is worth noting the South China sea has been generally regarded as a mother of all disputes as it has created so many delimitation issues with the neighbors such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.  From an international law perspective, the legal framework established by the United Nations Covenant of Law of the Sea in 1982 to make a balance for potential issues that can arise among the coastal nations has not been adequate as a forcing mechanism regarding the issues in the South China sea as many legal and territorial disputes persist.

The recent revival of Britain’s enthusiasm for sending its biggest aircraft carrier to HMS Queen Elizabeth has its roots that derived from Britain imperial past in the yesteryears. In particular, Britain maintained a rapport with its ex-colonies in East Asia such as Malaysia and Singapore on the defence issues in the aftermath of colonialism by keeping a naval base in Singapore and also British army’s jungle warfare unit is still located in Brunei. It is important to remember that, both Singapore and Brunei are countries facing the South China Sea and also the defence pact established by Britain in 1971 which is known as the five-power defence arrangement (FPDA) consists of UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia plays an indispensable role in Asia pacific region indicating Britain’s persistent interest in the region even after British imperial glory has been faded away as a memory in the past. As a matter of fact, Britain’s nostalgia for Kipling’s romanticized version of “East of Suez which is much akin to British agenda in keeping her eye on the affairs beyond the European theatre still prevails active with the newest development of British involvement in the Asian Pacific region. However, it seems to indicate that early Chinese activities in the South China sea were not viewed by the British as acts which were hostile to their interests during the cold war. Yet decades after the end of the Cold war, the emergence of China as a global power has dragged Britain back to its former region of power with new strategic interests. It was in January 2014 that UK then foreign secretary William Hague expressed UK’s newly revived interest toward Asia Pacific affairs, which was further reflected in the statement issued by the UK National Strategy for maritime security where the South China sea was mentioned as an important maritime region for the security interests of the UK. It stated “The UK Government is concerned by the tensions in the South and East China seas. The UK has significant economic and political interests in the Asia Pacific region. It is important that all nations in the region resolve any maritime dispute peacefully and within the rule of law while protecting and promoting freedom of navigation and trade. Following the steeping growth Chinese military presence in the South China Sea, Britain formally announced in 2019 that it would actively take part in the affairs in the South China Sea to confront China as China flouts international law. 

The British ambition of seeking its new global Britannia dream has been further intensified by the report of NATO, which has declared that “rise of China is the single biggest, most consequential change in NATO’s strategic environment and one that alliance really has to reckon with”.

Considering UK’s yearning to restore its ambition to play a key role in global politics beyond Europe in the aftermath of Brexit is likely to be an escalating event that would push Beijing to take defensive acts. The statement made by a Chinese leader in addressing the first military exercises of the people’s liberation army of 2021 echoes an implicit warning for the UK’s ambition of deploying HMS Queen Elizabeth in the South China sea as Xi Jin Ping mentioned that “army must remain ready to act at any second”.  It is becoming much clearer that besides the territorial disputes existing in the South China Sea, the UK’s arrival in the concert would lead to a much serious conflict as both the UK and China have their grudges stemming from their colonial encounters of the past. Nevertheless, unlike the weaker China who was subjugated by the British opium in the 19th century, modern China stands equal or much superior to the military and economic capacities of the UK. 

Author

  • Punsara Amarasinghe is a former visiting fellow at the Global Legal Studies Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison and he is currently reading for Ph.D. in law at the institute of law, politics and development at Scuola Supriore Sant Anna, Pisa. He can be reached at [email protected]