Manchester: Britain has no plans to conduct deliberate freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said.
While Sir Michael said Britain would readily fly and sail through the Straits of Malacca, he was urged by a former junior Tory defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth to take a stronger line against China to reinforce the Five Power defence arrangement. That arrangement includes Australia as well as the UK’s principle ally, the US.
Sir Michael Fallon, Britain’s Defence Secretary, at a fringe event at the Tory party conference in Manchester. Photo: Latika Bourke
At a fringe event on the sidelines of the Tory party conference in Manchester, Fairfax Media asked if Britain would conduct freedom of navigation exercises. Sir Michael said Britain had flown Typhoon aircraft through the South China Sea last year and would do so again but would not conduct exercises as they are a direct challenge to China’s territorial claims.
“We will exercise our right of navigation and the Americans have been carrying out specific exercises throughout some of the disputed islands and we’re not, we don’t have plans to do that,” Sir Michael said.
China has labelled the US Navy’s decision to sail “without permission” close to an artificial island Beijing claims in the South China Sea as provocative. Photo: AP
“On the contrary, we are seeking, we are asking everybody and its not just the Chinese, there are competing claims in the South China Sea, to take these claims to the proper tribunals and abide by their rulings.
“I hope that’s clear. We will not be deterred from sailing or flying through that particular region.”
Earlier this year at the meeting of UK and Australian defence and foreign ministers known as AUKMIN, foreign minister Julie Bishop said Australia saw Britain as “a natural partner with us in the development and security of the Pacific”.
In Sydney, Sir Michael said: “We believe that the Five Power defence arrangements have a greater role, too, to play in building regional security, in increasing maritime security”.
A billboard reads “South China Sea, our beautiful motherland, we won’t let go an inch” in China’s Shandong province. Photo: AP
In Manchester, Sir Gerald, who served as a parliamentary under-secretary between 2010 and 2012 before his retirement as a Tory MP in June, immediately called upon Sir Michael to reconsider his stance, describing it as a “missed opportunity” to stand by Britain’s allies.
“The Chinese in their actions are potentially going to create a military stranglehold on the region and that is threatening, intimidatory and our friends in the region rightly look to the United Kingdom to support them and that’s what we should be doing not least in support of our allies in Australia,” Sir Gerald told Fairfax Media.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has a selfie with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop ahead of their bilateral meeting in Sydney. Photo: AP
He said with Britain soon to be “liberated” from the “defunct 1950s construct” of the European Union, which had been “such a drain” on Britain’s time, the country should return to what it had done “best for centuries… which is to help stabilise instability around the world”.
The South China Sea is one of the most important shipping routes in the world. Since 2014, China has increasingly transformed artificial reefs into runways and ports.
“The whole world has allowed the Chinese, with complete impunity, to create these military facilities which whilst they may not be used at the moment, could be used in the future to destabilise the region,” Sir Gerald said. He said Beijing’s failure to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions showed China’s “unwillingness to act as a responsible power in the world”.
“I understand we’re going to see our new aircraft carriers to the region shortly. Well I’d like to see them sail through their disputed waters which the Chinese have unilaterally claimed the right to control,” he said.
Between 2015 and 2016, the Obama administration started and conducted four freedom-of-navigation exercises commonly called “Fonops” in the South China Sea, where US ships or planes come within 12 nautical miles of disputed areas China claims. Under President Trump, the United States has already carried out three and more are expected. Like Britain, Australia does not carry out freedom-of-navigation exercises.
Sir Gerald said Britain’s reluctance to join the US, which is the only country to carry out freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea, was due to Britain’s desire to encourage Chinese investment and trade.
In 2015, China was the UK’s third-largest importer and the the eighth largest market for British exports.
Not the ‘carping’ view
Sir Gerald also said carrying out freedom-of-navigation exercises would present Donald Trump with an alternative to the “carping view” and “intellectual contempt” much of the Western world shows towards US President.
“This would be an opportunity for us, instead of to allow the sort of carping of President Trump to be the dominant view, the dominant picture that we present to the United States that’s showing that relationship, particularly under the defence field, is as strong ever.”
President Trump was supposed to visit the United Kingdom around October. But the invitation, issued by British Prime Minister Theresa May shortly after her inauguration and when she became the first leader to visit him, caused political controversy for her at home.