Double standards? Britain scolds South China Sea rivals while deploying to own island colonies

Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. © Kham
British policy on the Falklands, Gibraltar and Diego Garcia left a whiff of hypocrisy when Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Vietnam on Tuesday that claimants in the South China Sea must not send troops to disputed maritime areas.

Hammond’s remarks came during a trip to Vietnam as part of a strategic partnership formed in 2010. He was expected to discuss education and the illegal wildlife trade, but intervened on the dispute currently festering in the South China Sea.

During a meeting in Hanoi with his counterpart Pham Binh Minh, Hammond told AP: “It is our firm view that claimants [of the South China Sea] should refrain from the threat or use of force and from unilateral actions such as deployment of military forces and equipment on disputed maritime features.

On Tuesday China responded to G7 calls to restrain its South China Sea activities.

We urge G7 members to abide by their promise of not taking sides on territorial disputes, respect the efforts by regional countries, stop all irresponsible words and actions, and make constructive contribution to regional peace and stability,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement.

The dispute centers on claims of territorial power. A number of states in the region claim in part, or in full, the Spratly and Paracels archipelagos. China has recently begun building artificial islands in the area and populating them with troops and military equipment.

The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei also lay a degree of claim to the area.

Hammond might consider restraining his eastward finger wagging, however, as the UK also claims a number of islands around the globe and has militarized each of them to a considerable extent.

The Falkland Islands, for instance, are contested by Argentina. The two countries even fought a short but vicious war over them in 1982. The islands have hosted UK troops and warfighting equipment for decades.

Gibraltar, to which Spain lays a claim, is a regular flashpoint, as well as a military garrison. It is represented in the British military by a special colonial force called the Gibraltar Regiment, which has an integrated artillery unit.

The Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia is a British territory currently leased to the US as an airbase. It was a key location in the ‘War on Terror’ policy of rendition – effectively the kidnap and torture of terror suspects.

Its indigenous inhabitants are the Chagos Islanders. In 1971, they were ejected to make way for the US base and still contest the issue. British military personnel continue to serve on the island.

Referring to the South China Sea, Hammond said Britain also has “strong national interests in the continued stability and security of this region.

This view is echoed in a renewed British policy of operating East of Suez – an area from which it militarily withdrew with the post-1945 collapse of empire.

The initiative falls in line with the strategic shift widely called the Pivot to Asia, which will see the West reorganize to face a rising China and has recently seen the re-establishment or expansion of naval and land bases in Oman and Bahrain.