Analysis: Why will UK invite Australia to accompany its cruise in South China Sea?

China Military Online
Yao Jianing

Recently, Australia’s Minister for Defense Marise Payne and British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson have discussed joint naval operations in the Pacific during their two-day meeting.

According to the Guardian, the British newspaper, the UK plans to send its largest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the Pacific Ocean. This is to facilitate the British Navy to conduct “free navigation” patrols in the South China Sea to demonstrate its strength in the region.

The Australian navy has been invited to accompany the pride of Britain’s fleet, the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, when it comes to the Pacific, Australia Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Earlier, British National Security Adviser Sir Mark Sedwill said that the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier would need support from the friendly forces on high-end combat missions due to the reduced size of the escort fleet.

Unmatched Ability and Ambition

“Australia’s escort of the British aircraft carrier is unlikely to be a display of the ‘British-Australian friendship’ at the top of the two governments. On the contrary, it indicates the smaller British Navy is incapable of moving alone,” the Global Times commented.

According to the British media, the UK initially planned to form an aircraft carrier battle group including the “Queen Elizabeth”. However, the reality is that the British Navy’s capital warships, six Type 45 destroyers, have to stay on ports for maintenance due to engine failure and seldom set out in a year.

At the end of November 2017, all six of Type 45 destroyers were broken down. The Type 26 frigate is still under construction and is expected to be delivered to the British Navy after 2020.

The Global Times believes that it seems to be the only viable choice to seek help from her younger brother, Australia, for the “Queen” who lacks the escort of destroyers and frigates that act like “guards”.

Still envisages “the Sun Never Sets”?

Some said that returning to the Asia-Pacific of the smaller British Navy, whose military power can hardly match its ambition, is merely for image. Why is the UK determined to come to the South China Sea? What are British strategic interests in this region?

Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow from the Institute of International Studies of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), believes that one of the important reasons behind the UK’s proposal to expand its military presence in the South China Sea is to divert the British people’s attention amid overwhelming “Brexit” in order to create some space to buffer the disadvantageous strategic dilemma in the country.

Hu said another reason is that once the former maritime hegemon, the UK, is still relishing its former glory. “The UK always wants to maintain the glory of the British Empire and stubbornly believes that the entire Pacific region should belong to the British territory and sphere of influence.”

It coincides with the review recently published on the Australian Lowyinterpreter. org.

The review said the British Royal Navy has always been proud of its continued global influence. Some believe that as a respected conventional maritime force, the UK may be able to maintain a “rule-based order” through conducting “free navigation”, moderate but routine existence and strengthening capacity building in the region. Cabinet ministers in the UK’s government who are eager to maintain the image of a “globalized UK” are therefore supporting the ideas with a close-lipped smile.

However, there are several problems.

First of all, as the Royal Navy has been considerably scaled down, is it really feasible for the Royal Navy to enhance its presence in the Indian Ocean-Pacific region? Secondly, will a large navy deployment in the region really contribute to regional peace and security? Is it really a worthwhile move for the UK?

“It can be seen that the UK still wants to continue to play the ‘big boss’ role in international affairs,” said Hu. However, the Australian media poured cold water on the UK. “In view of an ever-growing China, cruising in the South China Sea is dangerous for the distant and small-sized British Navy,” Hu added.

Only Thought

Liu Xiaobo, an associate research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), believes that from a practical perspective, the UK’s concern for the South China Sea stems from the consideration of the US-British relations.

However, there may be some ambiguity if you say the UK is trying to cooperate with the US “Indo-Pacific Strategy” as the UK is struggling for Brexit, so it can barely introduce an EU strategy, let alone an Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Fundamentally speaking, the UK is unlikely to play a central role in this region as the interests there are relatively minor to it.

Liu said that the UK seems to pursue a regional order based on “balance” and “rules”, but it remains unknown how far the specific actions of it can go.

For example, he said, the carrier-based aircraft F-35 purchased by the UK just flew back home from the US in this June. Military finances may find it difficult to support an aircraft carrier formation to cruise in Asia because a cruise costs a large sum of money. There will be a lot of controversy within the British government.

Ding Duo, an assistant research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), pointed out that though the UK has no urgent strategic interests in the South China Sea, based on its traditional maritime powers and maritime trade, its concerns about freedom of navigation is expected.

The “interaction” between the UK and Australia in the South China Sea is not a South China Sea issue in nature, but rather a consideration for strengthening bilateral defense and security cooperation. They just need to find a focus or a reason and it appears that the South China Sea is the most suitable one, Ding said.

He also said that according to media disclosure, there are certain problems in the current development of the navies in both the UK and Australia. Though the British aircraft carrier intends to let Australian ships to accompany in the South China Sea, it could only be a show but there are many difficulties exists in reality.

China will certainly take appropriate countermeasures to protect its legitimate rights and interests if the deployment poses a threat to China’s sovereignty, maritime interests and security in the South China Sea.

According to Ding, as the situation in the South China Sea has been stable recently, any move of the extraterritorial countries to hype up the South China Sea issue is not welcome by anyone. These countries will not receive any positive response from the coastal countries around the South China Sea.

Disclaimer: The author is Yao Ling with the It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.

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