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What role will the UK play in the South China Sea under its new maritime strategy?

By Ding Duo | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2022-08-24 14:47
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Cai Meng | China Daily

Recently, the UK government released the new version of the National Strategy for Maritime Security (hereinafter referred to as the "Strategy"). The UK believes the move will demonstrate its "critical role in supporting a rule and principle-based international order" at a time rife with global tensions. The new version of the "Strategy" explains the connotation and extension of maritime security and its significance to the UK and sets strategic goals and implementation paths in the field of national maritime security. It can be seen as a window to observe the UK's maritime policy over the next five years or even longer, and it may also have a certain impact on the global ocean governance pattern.

Ocean Strategy under the Conception of "Global Britain"

The new version of the "Strategy" proposes that, as an island country with major global interests, the economic lifeline of the UK lies in the ocean. The security of the UK's maritime areas, the security of international shipping lanes and maritime infrastructure, and the security of the flow of goods, people and information are all closely related to its prosperity. The UK will deter and respond to possible "coercion and aggression" by developing security and economic partners, combining hard and economic security, and building a stronger partnership under the vision of a "Global Britain" to unleash its full power in "defending the values."

The concept of "Global Britain" was first proposed by the former foreign minister Johnson in 2016, and gradually developed into a foreign policy guide for the British government to expand its development space outside Europe and its global influence. This idea is systematically explained in the UK's March 2021 publication "Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy".

The new version of the "Strategy" confirms that the UK will use comprehensive political, diplomatic, economic, legal, technological and other means to achieve the five strategic goals of "protecting its homeland, responding to threats, ensuring prosperity, championing its values and supporting a secure, resilient ocean". The UK will deepen maritime-related cooperation with allies, partners and international organizations; maintain a "rules-based international maritime order" and safeguard the freedom, fairness and openness of the seas.

In terms of "protecting its homeland", the UK will provide an effective maritime security framework for borders, ports and marine infrastructure; protect network information and data against cyber-attacks and other forms of cyber threats; and safeguard the flow of people and goods at seas.

In terms of "responding to threats", it will strengthen the ability of maritime situational awareness, combat terrorism and organized crime activities, ensure traditional maritime security through comprehensive means such as military and technology, and continue to consolidate and develop NATO and the AUKUS partnerships.

In terms of "ensuring prosperity", it will deepen cooperation with other countries in non-traditional maritime security fields, ensure the safety of international shipping, strengthen monitoring and information collection on strategic maritime passages and chokepoints, and protect submarine infrastructure such as cables and pipelines.

In terms of "defending values", the UK regards the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (hereinafter referred to as the "UNCLOS") as the legal framework for regulating all maritime activities and will safeguard the rights and obligations stipulated in it, including freedom of navigation, and maintain the "freedom, openness and security" in the Indo-Pacific. In this sense, being the European country with the widest and most comprehensive presence in the region is the UK's most important goal.

As to "supporting a secure, resilient ocean ", it will advocate the concept of sustainable ocean governance, coordinate the response to climate change and ocean governance, and call for international cooperation to jointly resist the negative impacts of covid-19, the sea level rise, ocean acidification and marine environmental degradation.

The Continuity and Characteristics of the New "Strategy"

The new "Strategy" is in line with the UK's maritime policy in recent years. The UK first released national maritime security strategy in 2014, emphasizing that by integrating national resources and enhancing comprehensive capabilities, it would effectively assess, identify and respond to maritime security challenges from both domestic and international aspects, and protect maritime trade, energy channels, local and security in overseas territories. Although new situations such as "Brexit" appeared during the implementation of this strategy, the UK's maritime policy was guided by this strategy in general and maintained a certain degree of continuity and stability. In 2019, the UK established a joint maritime security center to coordinate and cooperate with stakeholders to formulate a "system-wide response model" based on a common understanding of maritime security risks. This mechanism has accumulated experience for the UK to systematically assess maritime threats. The "Maritime 2050: navigating the future", released in the same year, set a long-term vision for the UK's ocean governance in the next 30 years, and the new "Strategy" basically conforms to the long-term safety goals set in the "Maritime 2050: navigating the future " document.

On the other hand, the new "Strategy" can also be regarded as a first attempt in the field of maritime issues. It is a systematic presentation of the concept of "Global Britain" at the level of national maritime security strategies. Compared with the 2014 version, the new "strategy" goes beyond the EU's strategic positioning and geopolitical interests in global maritime security issues and gets rid of the restrictions and constraints of EU foreign policies and rules in policy selection and resource allocation. The implementation paths in the field all point to the goal of "regaining Britain's traditional status as a maritime power".

The new "Strategy" states that leaving the EU gives the UK the ability to develop strategies and policies around the country's most important priorities and values. Behind this may not only be the spiritual sustenance of the UK for the historical memory of a former maritime power, but also the urgent desire to reconstruct the national strategic positioning and identity perception, as well as the practical needs to ease the pain of Brexit and quell domestic political infighting.

The new "Strategy" has a complete framework. After the exploration of the two editions of the strategy, London has established a systematic national maritime security strategic framework, with clear strategic objectives and guiding principles, and continuous refinement of specific objectives.

The new "Strategy" attaches great importance to the systematic assessment of marine security threats and the interpretation of security concepts. It has systematically analyzed the maritime security situation, especially the sources of threats, and some of the threats have also been explained in the form of cases. This approach provides an in-depth explanation of the UK's policies in the fields of maritime situational awareness, maritime risk assessment and the shaping of maritime order, and provides theoretical support for various actions.

The new "Strategy" also places equal emphasis on active defense and strategic reshaping. In terms of active defense, it is proposed to make full use of its own advantages, take the initiative to attack terrorism and illegal maritime activities, etc., and invest more funds to support the research and development of marine security projects, threat perception and early warnings of key international waterways. As to the strategic reshaping, it is emphasized that multiple methods will be sought to support its partners' maritime security activities in the "Indo-Pacific". The UK will increase the supply of public goods for maritime security in the "Indo-Pacific" region through longer and more coordinated military deployments.

The situation in the UK and abroad has changed significantly from when the national maritime security strategy was first proposed eight years ago. In addition to "Brexit", the impact of the Ukraine crisis and the largest geopolitical confrontation in Europe since the end of the Cold War is also reflected. In the new "Strategy", the UK strongly criticized Russia, and mentioned the related maritime cases between Ukraine and Russia in the International Court of the Law of the Sea. In the UK's view, Russia's "violation of the international law of the sea" is also one of the important reasons for the UK to strengthen security cooperation with its allies and partners and maintain the UNCLOS and international maritime order.

The South China Sea is the focus of the new "Strategy"

The new "Strategy" pays great attention to the "Indo-Pacific" and the South China Sea. Historically, Britain had long appeared as a colonialist in East and Southeast Asia. For a long time after World War II, Britain's role in the geopolitical pattern of the South China Sea gradually faded away. However, in recent years, Britain's "Indo-Pacific" policy and South China Sea policy have been gradually adjusted, which is generally affected by two factors, both internal and external.

On the one hand, as stated in the "Strategy", the South China Sea is a major trade corridor connecting Europe and East Asia, and although the UK is far from the waterway, 12% of seaborne trade passes through the South China Sea every year. Six of the UK's top 25 trading partners are in the "Indo-Pacific" region. Southeast Asia is the UK's third largest non-EU export market and third largest defense export market, with obvious links to British security and prosperity. Some British maritime policy scholars also pointed out that, as a maritime trading country with deep historical ties to the ocean, the UK needs to ensure a good maritime order, because what happens in far-flung parts of the world will affect the UK sooner or later.

Maintaining reliable engagement with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region and maintaining a strategic presence in the region will be a priority for the UK under the strategic objective of "Global Britain". This "reliable engagement" means "no half-hearted measures can be taken" and that "the UK needs to be present and must be persistent". In the eyes of former UK defense minister Gavin Williamson, in an era of great power competition, the UK cannot be content with merely protecting its own "backyard".

On the other hand, the US has adhered to the cold war mentality and bloc politics in its foreign policy in recent years, taking the South China Sea issue as an important lever to put pressure on China, and even declaring that "the South China Sea has become a stage for strategic competition between the Washington and Beijing." Since the US proposed the "Indo-Pacific Strategy", the UK, Japan, Australia and other allies have invested more and more resources in the South China Sea, and the degree of coordination between them has also been continuously improved. Under the "Indo-Pacific" framework, these countries have formed a series of consensuses, including "centering on maritime affairs", "emphasizing rules-based order" and "geopolitical games guided by values". As the most important ally of the US, the UK has followed it on the South China Sea issue. Even if the UK's actual role is small, as long as it maintains an "active posture", London will relieve some of the burden on the Washington and its regional allies, while expanding its own space for activities in the South China Sea and enhancing its "global influence".

From this point of view, it seems that through the new "Strategy", we can understand the UK's South China Sea policy in the next few years. The UK proposed that it would use a series of means in the South China Sea to "promote and defend" the UNCLOS, including the rights of littoral states in its "exclusive economic zone", and support the settlement of disputes through international judicial approach. It claims that if the UNCLOS is "undermined in one area, wherever that area is, whatever the circumstances, it may be weakened elsewhere”. The new Strategy also refers to the diplomatic note summited in September 2020 denying China's claims in the South China Sea, which tried to place China on the opposite side of the so-called "rules-based international maritime order".

In addition to making irresponsible remarks about China under the banner of the UNCLOS at the diplomatic and legal level, the UK may also send more warships into the South China Sea to carry out its military activities, to improve the level of coordination and cooperation with the US in the South China Sea issues. The UK may also increase its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region through mechanisms and frameworks such as bilateral alliances, the Five Eyes alliance, the Five-Power Defense Agreement group (Australia, UK, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore) and even consider redeployment in Southeast Asia. Judging from recent discussions in the UK; Singapore, Brunei and Australia are all potential partners that may sign a series of base access agreements with the UK, and Japan can also be seen as another important logistical support for the UK in the northeast Asia.

To sum up, the new "Strategy" is the strategic layout of the UK in the field of maritime security after "Brexit". As a top-level strategic design, it reflects the ambition and aggressiveness of the United Kingdom under the vision of "Global Britain", but whether it can achieve the five strategic goals set by the strategy, the author thinks it is not appropriate to draw conclusions prematurely. It depends not only on the development and changes of the international situation, but also on whether the UK really has sufficient resources, continuous financial support, a stable political environment and general social consensus.

Ding Duo is deputy director and associate research fellow, the Research Center for Ocean Law and Policy at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

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