Best frenemies? UK Navy mission risks leaving China trade deal all at sea
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, apparently channelling his inner Britannia, has announced the type 23 frigate HMS ‘Sutherland’ will travel through a key trading lane in the South China Sea.
The announcement by the former businessman and chief Tory whip comes just one year after his predecessor slammed Russia for a similar maneuver in British waters.
The Ministry of Defence said the Russian ships would be “escorted all the way” on January 27 last year, as they sailed through the English Channel.
The then-Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said: “We will keep a close eye on the ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ as it skulks back to Russia; a ship of shame whose mission has only extended the suffering of the Syrian people.
“We are man-marking these vessels every step of the way around the UK as part of our steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe.”
HMS ‘Sutherland’ took part in that operation to escort Russian vessels away from British waters, which makes its deployment to China all the more interesting.
Williamson was pushed on whether the frigate will sail within 12 nautical miles of the coast — the UN-defined distance indicating territorial waters.
However, he would not answer.
US naval missions often carry out what they call “freedom-of-navigation cruises” which can provoke tensions internationally. Williamson — a man with no military experience, who jumped from chief whip to defence minister — said he is in support of such missions by the US.
The US Navy makes it clear that part of the reason for the missions is to dispute Chinese influence.
Williamson said, according to the Independent: “We absolutely support the US approach on this, we very much support what the US has been doing.”
The UK will hope to assert freedom of navigation rights in waters where Beijing is increasingly asserting its control.
The move, confusingly, comes just days after Prime Minister Theresa May and husband Philip left Beijing after a mission to woo the country into a trade deal.
China’s reception for “aunty May” and her husband Philip — apparently a “handsome” Briton to many in Beijing — was warm.
But Britain appears intent on playing mind games with the naval efforts off the Chinese coast.
China could take the infringement badly, months after the Arleigh-Burke class guided missile destroyer USS ‘Stethem’ sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel chain.
Beijing labelled the plan “a serious political and military provocation.”
The timing, while Brexit negotiations are not going well for the UK, was ridiculed online since Britain can barely afford to lose friends.
Author A C Grayling summed it up on Twitter.
Williamson made the announcement during a visit to Australia — the country HMS ‘Sutherland’ will sail home from.
He told The Australian: “[‘Sutherland’] will be sailing through the South China Sea and making it clear our Navy has a right to do that.
“World dynamics are shifting so greatly. The US can only concentrate on so many things at once. The US is looking for other countries to do more. This is a great opportunity for the UK and Australia to do more, to exercise leadership.”
Williamson added in an interview with state broadcaster ABC: “It’s very important that we demonstrate that these are seas anyone can pass through and we’ll be making sure that the Royal Navy will protect those rights for international shipping.
“Australia [and] Britain see China as a country of great opportunities, but we shouldn’t be blind to the ambition that China has and we’ve got to defend our national security interests.
“We’ve got to ensure that any form of malign intent is countered and we see increasing challenges — it’s not just from China, it’s from Russia, it’s from Iran — and we’ve got to be constantly making sure that our security measures, our critical national infrastructure is protected.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “All countries in accordance with international law enjoy freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.
“Currently the South China Sea is calm and tranquil and we hope relevant sides don’t try to create trouble out of nothing.”
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