Tackling the South China Sea Together: British and French Navies Chart a Course

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 6, June 2018 

By Peter M. Solomon

At a September 2015, joint press conference at the White House, China’s President Xi Jinping stood beside U.S. President Barack Obama and said, “China does not intend to pursue militarization” with respect to “construction activities that China are undertaking” on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.[1] Since then, China has established several offensive capabilities in the region, including surface-to-air and anti-ship missile systems on three features in the Spratly Islands and the ability to deploy strategic bombers from the Paracel Islands.[2]  In comparison to the United States, which has been a consistent critic of China’s reclamation and militarization and has embarked on numerous freedom of maritime navigation exercises in the region, the European Union (EU) has historically been reserved in its comments regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea. Instead, the EU has limited itself to general comments about the importance of maintaining freedom of the seas and resolving disputes peacefully. While these statements are not without importance, the lack of a more critical, unified EU approach to China’s destabilizing activities has left missing a crucial voice. The tides could soon turn.

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The June 2018 Shangri-La [Security] Dialogue may have marked a turning point with respect to the EU’s stance vis-à-vis China. Speaking at the Dialogue, UK Defense Minister Gavin Williamson, while not specifically mentioning China or the South China Sea, described the need for multilateralism to address threats “from increasingly aggressive states infringing regional access, freedoms and security through coercion and malign influence.”[3] Williamson also highlighted a recent visit by HMS Sutherland and HMS Albion to the region, which has been posited by highly-regarded Asia expert Bill Hayton as a play by the UK to “[push] back against China’s attempts to close off these waters – and standing up for freedom of navigation around the world.”[4] Similarly, France sent an assault ship and a frigate through the Spratly Islands in late May and is planning several more maritime exercises in the South China Sea this year.[5] France, too, expects its maritime task force will be joined by British ships and helicopters and German observers in future sorties.[6]  In Florence Parly’s remarks at the Dialogue, the French Defense Minister said, “France fully supports a code of conduct in the South China Sea…” and “We believe negotiations are the way to go. Meanwhile, we should be very clear that the fait accompli is not a fait accepted.”[7]

As examined in the book, Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea, I explore how “Any conflict in the South China Sea…could endanger Europe’s economic stake in the East-Asia Western Pacific region,” and the need for the EU to “adopt a collective, censorious rhetoric against China’s hawkish behavior.”[8] It is certainly positive that France and the UK are stepping up their presence in the South China Sea, and hopefully soon the EU will embark on its own freedom of navigation exercises. As the EU’s head of security policy Francois Rivasseau put it in March 2018, “We’re not there but not entirely out of the question.”[9] It is also promising that even though the UK plans to withdraw from the EU in March 2019, it is still committed to working with its European counterparts to promote peace and stability, as evidenced by these most recent naval transits in Asia.

The presence of U.S. military forces in the East-Asia Western Pacific region has largely contributed to decades of peace and stability, allowing the region to flourish (including such nations as China, in addition to more traditional U.S. allies Japan and South Korea).[10] In contrast, there are clear signs that China is more interested in boosting its economic and military prospects at the expense of others. The editor of Great Powers, Grand Strategies, Anders Corr, elucidates a dangerous cocktail of China’s “suppression of democracy, human rights, and international law in Asia and abroad” and emphasizes that “Chinese military spending and activity are driving the region’s arms race.”[11] In another chapter of Great Powers, Grand Strategies, Mr. Hayton succinctly answers the question of why China built its new artificial islands in the South China Sea. Mr. Hayton argues the islands help China maximize its control of the South China Sea, and “its need to protect the ruling regime, the national territory and its supply routes, along with its desire to control maritime resources.”[12]

Indeed, in just a few short months since the book’s publication China has doubled down on its efforts to control the South China Sea, and now more than ever a unified approach by the EU is needed vis-à-vis China. Western allies, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are also aware of the challenge posed by China and are focused on fortifying their Pacific fleets in response.[13]  Recent disagreements amongst the United States and its allies on trade and the Iran nuclear deal are ominous developments for transatlantic relations. Nonetheless, a common goal to maintain freedom of maritime navigation and a code of conduct in the South China Sea may be exactly what this partnership needs. The stakes are too great not to tackle this challenge together.

Peter M. Solomon works in government and regulatory affairs in the banking industry in New York. He holds an MA in international political economy from King’s College, London, and a BA in English and political science from the University of Connecticut. Mr. Solomon’s research on the South China Sea was recently published in a chapter of Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea. His research on this subject has been cited in the Wall Street Daily and his writing has been published by the Journal of Political Risk and the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). JPR Status: Opinion.

[1] “Remarks by President Obama and President Xi of the People’s Republic of China in Joint Press Conference.” National Archives and Records Administration. September 25, 2015. Accessed June 11, 2018. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/25/remarks-president-obama-and-president-xi-peoples-republic-china-joint.

[2] Panda, Ankit. “South China Sea: What China’s First Strategic Bomber Landing on Woody Island Means.” The Diplomat. May 22, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/south-china-sea-what-chinas-first-strategic-bomber-landing-on-woody-island-means/.

[3] Williamson, Gavin. “Shangri-La Dialogue.” Https://www.iiss.org/events/shangri-la-dialogue/shangri-la-dialogue-2018. June 3, 2018. Accessed June 17, 2018.

[4] Hayton, Bill. “Britain Is Right to Stand Up to China Over Freedom of Navigation.” Chatham House. June 1, 2018. Accessed June 17, 2018. https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/britain-right-stand-china-over-freedom-navigation.

[5] “France Challenges China with South China Sea Military Push.” South China Morning Post. June 12, 2018. Accessed June 18, 2018. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2150407/water-and-air-french-military-pushes-back-against.

[6] “Shangri-La Dialogue.” Defense.gouv.fr. June 3, 2018. Accessed June 17, 2018. https://www.defense.gouv.fr/english/minister/prises-de-parole-de-la-ministre/florence-parly-shangri-la-dialogue.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Corr, Anders. Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

[9] Tillett, Andrew. “Europe Weighs in on South China Sea Dispute.” Financial Review. April 02, 2018. Accessed June 17, 2018. https://www.afr.com/news/top-eu-diplomat-weighs-in-on-south-china-sea-dispute-20180326-h0xzrz.

[10] Breer, William. “U.S. Alliances in East Asia: Internal Challenges and External Threats.” Brookings. May 12, 2010. Accessed June 17, 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/u-s-alliances-in-east-asia-internal-challenges-and-external-threats/; Ellis, Stephen. “How U.S. Military Power Benefits China.” The Diplomat. March 13, 2014. Accessed June 17, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2014/03/how-u-s-military-power-benefits-china/.

[11] Corr, Anders.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Taylor, Rob. “At Sea, A Spending Spree.” Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2018.