The latest series of UK military provocations in the South China Sea have drawn international public concern and strong opposition and condemnation from Chinese government.
In September last year, a British naval amphibious transport dock trespassed into the territorial waters of Xisha Islands in the South China Sea and was expelled by the Chinese Navy. In December, British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in an interview with the British media that the UK will establish military bases in Singapore and Brunei after Brexit. In January, 2019, the Royal Navy’s frigates held joint military exercises with the US military aircraft and warships in the South China Sea, including subjects of communication, maneuver, etc. On February 11, Williamson announced in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) that the UK will dispatch the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier carrying the F-35B fighters to the Asia-Pacific region with a view to displaying its “hard power”.
The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) underway during exercise "Saxon Warrior 2017" on 5 August 2017.
As an island country in the Atlantic Ocean, why does the UK travel far and wide to the South China Sea to make troubles? Williamson comprehensively explained the defense strategy of the UK after Brexit in his long speech at the Institute, which may give some clues to this question.
Williamson claimed that the UK wants to establish a global military presence. He believed that the UK has an unprecedented opportunity in the past 50 years and should seize this opportunity to restore its old alliances, establish new ones, and make a new strategic positioning. The UK is a global power with global interests. In an era of competition among big powers, the UK should not be merely content with the security maintenance of its own backyard. The establishment of military bases surrounding the South China Sea marks the end of the UK’s exit strategy from the east of the Suez Canal since the mid-1960s, and that the UK will play a “true global role”.
Williamson stressed that the UK must continue to play a leading role in global security. After listing out the British military leadership in Europe, especially in the Baltic, Mediterranean, Ukrainian, Balkan and other regions, Williamson pointed out that the United States is the “closest partner” of the UK, and the UK should strengthen the “Five Eyes” alliance, a secretive intelligence sharing clique made up of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In addition, it is necessary to strengthen relations with such countries as Singapore, Malaysia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan, Republic of Korea (ROK) and India, with a view to achieving the delivery and maximization of British influence throughout the world. Some people thought that the establishment of military bases in Southeast Asia is a sign of the UK’s entering into Asia after Brexit, indicating that the UK will shift its military focus from Europe to Asia-Pacific. But the view has belittled the “ambition” of the UK.
Williamson also pointed out that the UK should strengthen the building of a powerful army. The British Royal Navy will develop multiple-functional littoral mission ships (LMSs), and set up two littoral fleets composed of LMSs and supplemented by frigates, supply ships, and helicopters. One will be deployed in the Indo-Pacific area, and the other will cruise around the Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea. Meanwhile, the British Royal Air Force is to develop a large number of drones that can disturb and suppress air defense systems of its enemy. The British Royal Army will continue to carry out the construction of equipment modernization. In conclusion, all these initiatives are aimed at improving the combat effectiveness and lethality of the British troops.
Williamson's speech indicates that UK’s provocative actions in the South China Sea are not accidental, and there are three points hidden in logics.
Firstly, the mentality of not being a second-rate country is at work. Although the British people have realized that the fate of the country undergone tremendous changes since the end of the Second World War (WWII), they are reluctant to accept the demise of the empire. The British political leaders from Winston Churchill to the present ones have not solved this problem, eventually leading to the current dilemma in the Brexit process. The UK’s provocative actions in the South China Sea are intended to show its “military power” image, to cater to people’s “unyielding” mentality and to reproduce the glory of the empire in which “the sun never set”.
Secondly, the UK closely follows the United States as a “servant” to expand its presence. The UK is a country with an ambition but insufficient power. Due to the shortage of funds, the development of LMSs and drones mentioned in Williamson’s speech is but utopian scheme, not to mention extending its military front to the east of the Suez Canal. The only thing that can be done is send one or two warships to follow its “elder brother”, the US, to go to the South China Sea to engage in the so-called freedom of navigation, or hold joint military exercises to expand its presence as a “major power”. However, the current situation in the South China Sea is steadily getting better. It is held tight in the hands of the claimant states including China, and no countries outside the region such as the US and the UK are likely to shake it.
Thirdly, the UK means to expand its arms exports. As the world’s sixth-largest arms exporter, the UK also has the intention to display its weapons, expand military equipment exports, and boost the British economy after Brexit through making provocative actions in the South China Sea.
Regardless of how the UK will leave the EU, it is indisputable that the economic strength and international status of the UK is doomed to decline further after Brexit. The UK now acts as a tool of the United States to contain China and just win a bubble reputation of “global military presence”. It may just as well face the reality and apply its precious funds to the development of domestic economy and improvement of people’s lives.
Disclaimer: The author is Wu Zhenglong, former Chinese ambassador to Croatia. The article was published on Beijing Daily on February 17, 2019. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online.