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South China Morning Post, Wendy Wu, 19 March 2019

Dr John Hemmings, director of the Asia Studies Centre and deputy director of the Henry Jackson Society, a Britain-based think tank, said at the same event in Washington that Britain was considering formalising a policy of sharing intelligence with Japan.

He said about US$124 billion worth of trade – 12 per cent of Britain’s total – went through the South China Sea each year, “quite a significant amount of our revenue, so we would be concerned about anyone – China or whichever regional country – trying to control that waterway”.

“[Britain] will not lead, but certainly it will follow and will join and become a responsible partner of the community of the states that are interested in an Indo-Pacific concept,” Hemmings added.

The Netherlands said in October that it would send a warship to join British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on its first operation deployment in Indo-Pacific waters in 2021.

“We’ll see more of that,” Hemmings said, adding that Britain, Canada, Australia and various European countries would be “banding together and operating in groups like this”.


Gavin Williamson’s critics miss the point. There is a strong case for resisting Chinese aggression

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The Telegraph, 17 February, 2019

China’s decision to cancel a trade summit with the UK over remarks made in a speech by Gavin Williamson seems like bad news for Britain – it is estimated that the expected deals could have been worth £10bn over five years. Former Chancellor George Osborne accuses the Defence Secretary of “gunboat diplomacy of a quite old fashioned kind”.

The insinuation of these comments is clear: Williamson has hurt the economy by angering China. Yet beneath the outrage, China’s reaction suggests that the UK is finally beginning to develop a coherent response to Chinese aggression.

China’s current diplomatic aim is to persuade foreign governments that access to its market is based on largess and nobility, rather than the rules and regulations of the World Trade Organisation – heaven forbid we expect China to play by the rules. Not only is this type of discriminatory access illegal, it is also unlikely to be effective.

As British officials confided in me last year, Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama sent diplomatic relations into freefall, but barely affected trade. Deals continued to be signed. Political leaders were simply deprived of photo opportunities. Similar headlines which spoke of Beijing being “enraged” overlook the clever reward-punishment strategy deployed by Chinese leaders, which leverages market access to persuade countries to overlook or accept their expansionism. We are idiots if – knowing this – we bend to their manipulation again and again.

Williamson’s speech was hardly the fire-and-brimstone some critics are suggesting. I would defy readers to find an offensive word in it. He speaks of sending Royal Naval forces to “the Pacific region”. The Sun has creatively re-branded this as “threatening to send a British aircraft carrier to China’s backyard”. Really? As well as China, the South China Sea is shared by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Parts of it are more than 1,800 km from mainland China (for context, the distance between London and Moscow). China has no legal claims to the South China Sea, beyond usual practice on the high seas.

The Government’s new Global Britain policy emphasises its support for the ‘rules-based international system’. Yet the widespread criticism of Williamson suggests that these are mere buzzwords to our foreign policy elites. The Defence Minister deserves more support. What he said would hardly have surprised the Chinese, and he was simply doing his job of putting forward a strategy for protecting Britain’s interests.

report by the Henry Jackson Society, published a week before Mr Williamson’s speech, attempted to define Britain’s interests in the South China Sea and called for the very transit that has now so angered Beijing. Of course protecting jobs and replacing access to the common market are crucial goals for this government, which must be balanced with hazy geostrategic terms like “freedom of the seas”. However, even if we were to discount our responsibility to our Asian allies and partners, it would be unwise to sell out for deals worth a mere £10bn in cosmetics and poultry. This figure is dwarfedby the £124bn of UK trade that crosses the South China Sea to southeast Asian markets. Selling out British national interests in open and free trade routes isn’t just short-sighted, but terrible fiscal arithmetic.

China has built multiple military bases, bristling with anti-ship missilesthree of them larger than the US military’s Pearl Harbour. If you wish to control something, that is exactly what you do.

Press reports also talk about British officials embarking “on a frantic round of diplomacy to try to get the talks back on track”. This humiliation is likely the only real punishment that China will end up handing out.

In all of this, we overlook China’s reasons for wanting to trade with Britain. Skyrocketing food prices – the product of Trump’s tariffs – are pushing them towards alternative sources of poultry. The poisoning of citizens by dangerous counterfeit cosmetics gives China another strong incentive to reach a cosmetics deal with the UK, where standards are higher.

For all that Treasury figures might talk down our global standing, we should not forget that Beijing needs Britain to internationalise the Chinese currency, the renmimbi. Their new London Embassy, to be built in the heart of the City, reveals a long-term interest in accessing UK finance, fintech, and computing.

Finally, there are important – though much overlooked – ethical arguments. Are we really going to continue to aggressively pursue trade deals with a state that has re-created concentration camps for the modern era? Foreign policy elites in Western nations are still grappling with the moral conundrum this presents. Whatever our ultimate conclusion, I am convinced history will judge Mr Williamson’s remarks rather more favourably in years to come.

Britain needs to steel itself for the fight – if we decide to stand up to China, there will be far worse days than a cancelled summit.


Daily Express, Marco Giannangeli, 11 February, 2019

Report authors James Rogers and Dr John Hemmings, said: “In the South China Sea, the People’s Republic of China is seeking to revise the Law of the Sea by asserting a number of unlawful and excessive claims over various international waters and low-tide elevations.

This is important because the UK, a maritime trading power, relies on maritime communication lines, which in turn depend on the cohesion of the rules-based international system.

“Maintaining a persistent naval presence in the Indo-Pacific – not least the South China Sea – comes at a cost.”


Daily Express, Harvey Gavin, 9 February, 2019

But despite the risks, the HJS report says the UK should project its power into the South China Sea and uphold the law of the sea by carrying out its own freedom of navigation exercises in conjunction with allies.

The authors conclude: “The South China Sea may seem like a distant geopolitical theatre to the UK and therefore largely peripheral to core British national interests.

“However, nothing could be further from the truth: aside from its economic significance to British trade, which is considerable and growing, it marks a sort of litmus test for the durability of the rules-based system.”


Charting Britain’s Moves in the South China Sea

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RUSI Commentary, 6 February, 2019

A British naval presence in the South China Sea strengthens global security and Britain’s global role. But it must be matched with a more systematic approach to the region, and to China’s defiance of legal norms.

Last summer, the HMS Albion, an amphibious assault ship colloquially described as one of the Royal Navy’s ‘Swiss Army knives’, undertook what is widely believed to have been a freedom of navigation manoeuvre near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. In doing so, the British government has shown that it is committed to upholding the rules-based order and asserting its market access rights in Southeast Asia. This was commendable for two different reasons: it projects a Britain that is willing to take the diplomatic and economic risk in the name of upholding maritime rights that benefit many smaller and medium-sized states in the region; and it shows that despite the Brexit process and contrary to the established narrative in the media, British foreign policy elites still view themselves as having something to contribute to the global system.

Yet however commendable HMS Albion’s transit in the South China Sea may be, it raises the question of what is next? How does ‘Global Britain’ – an avowed objective of the government – follow up on this naval transit in a meaningful and sustainable manner? Also, how does it avoid coming into conflict with China, which has begun to push back on US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in a way that raises concerns about a possible miscalculation or naval incident at sea? In short, how does the UK avoid a situation in which an incident causes the loss of life of even just a single British sailor, leading to broader political questions about Britain’s role in ‘meddling’ in the affairs of ‘far-off peoples’, about whom allegedly it knows little?

A recent Henry Jackson Society report sought to answer these questions with a number of policy recommendations, which might alleviate or soften the risks, while searching for ways to adequately resource and sustain operations far from British shores. The report proposed, for example, that the Royal Naval vessels might carry out two different types of freedom of navigation manoeuvres to defend British access to the seas: jurisdictional; and territorial. In the first instance, the Royal Navy might challenge the excessive jurisdictional powers that China has claimed for itself, such as Beijing’s demands for advance warning of ships transiting its contiguous waters. In this instance, Royal Navy vessels need only carry out an innocent passage through the waters but, notably, without requesting permission or giving advanced notification, thereby indirectly refuting jurisdictional powers China is seeking to obtain.

In the second instance, Royal Navy vessels might challenge China’s excessive territorial claims – particularly those straight baselines drawn between islands – by sailing through them in a manner not befitting innocent passage. This might involve carrying out a brief man-overboard drill or the operation of a helicopter.

There is a question, naturally, of whether the Royal Navy should take part in such operations inside the 12 nautical mile line of certain Chinese features as the US Navy has begun to do. While there are risks in doing so, there are also risks in not doing so, particularly those man-made features or low-tide elevations, where China’s excessive claims are ridiculous. However, should the Royal Navy take part in such jurisdictional or territorial challenges, it must do so in a manner that does not increase instability in the region or risk a military response.

One way of decreasing risk is by opening up the programme to collective action of a number of like-minded states, but in a way that does not increase the number of vessels in-area. There is, for example, the ‘ship-rider’ programme, originally proposed by former US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift. He found that many states – both in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe – were torn between their national interests in upholding their maritime rights and their national interests in receiving Chinese investment and trade. China’s leadership has of course realised this and has become increasingly willing to ‘punish’ states in highly symbolic ways that impact domestic foreign policy debates in offending states. The HMS Albion’s transit, for example, was greeted with a threat in the China Daily – a state-run newspaper – that future transits could ‘put a spanner in the works’ of a post-Brexit free trade agreement.

The ship-rider idea aims to soften potential Chinese punishment by using collective action. So, for example, the next Royal Naval vessel to carry out a freedom of navigation manoeuvre might have on-board uniformed officers from, say, NATO, India, certain EU states which are not members of the Alliance or, perhaps, even regional states like Vietnam or the Philippines. Such a manoeuvre compounds and entangles China’s punishment strategy and also raises the prospect – however dim – of Beijing beginning to realise that increasing multilateralism around the South China Sea issue will necessitate compromise.

Another way of multilateralising the freedom of navigation manoeuvers in a manner that does not increase the risk of miscalculation is the ‘multiple hulls’ programme, whereby multiple ships transit the South China Sea together, with only one carrying out a freedom of navigation manoeuver while the others wait just outside the sector. So for example, a number of European powers might sail through the South China Sea on their way to take part in port visits, with only one taking part in the manoeuvre.

Such a concept is already a reality, albeit a very incipient one, through the various groupings which are being formed in the region: the US-Japan-Australia trilateral and the US-Japan-India-Australia Quad are both fairly new quasi-alliance groupings that have sprung up in the wake of China’s expansion over the South China Sea. A Global Britain that really wished to sustain its presence and its interests in the region could join such groupings and take part in interoperability-building joint exercises, like Cope North Guam or Pacific Bond. The former is an annual air warfare exercise in which British Typhoons might show their capabilities, while the latter is an annual trilateral maritime warfare exercise, to which Britain could display its anti-submarine-warfare-heavy Type-23 frigate.

A Global Britain that really does stand for the rules-based international system and wishes to protect its market access in Southeast Asia and the wider Pacific will need to craft a number of overlapping strategies for dealing with a variety of challenges. It will have to contend with the logistics and geographical challenges that the vast distances present, although Britain is lucky that it has access to many regional strategic hubs, including those in Singapore, Diego Garcia and Brunei. While geography presents many challenges, it also imposes a useful constraint: Britain has to rely on regional partners and allies for its forward-basing and must should negotiate new basing agreements with friendly regional powers. France’s recent basing agreement with India might serve as a template.

Britain will also have to craft an all-of-government China policy to deal with the political and economic challenges of an assertive rising state. It must be remembered that China needs access to Britain’s financial markets, its technologies, and its diplomatic and media soft power networks, just as Britain courts Chinese investment. But only when China realises Britain’s resolve would the government in London begin to have a real – if still marginal – impact on Chinese policy.


UK Defence Journal, Henry Jones, 30 January, 2019

The report, published by The Henry Jackson Society and entitled ‘The South China Sea: Why It Matters to Global Britain‘, claims China’s “unlawful and excessive claims” in the area pose a significant “threat to British interests”. The UK must continue to “reject Chinese claims over international waters”.

It recommends establishing a policy of Royal Navy vessels cruising through to the sea to deter China, in addition to sending HMS Queen Elizabeth to the area when fully operational in 2020-21.


Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific

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Henry Jackson Society,  22 May, 2018

The weight of the global economy is going to Asia, it is going by sea – and the United Kingdom must act now if we are to build a truly Global Britain, according to a new report from The Henry Jackson Society.

Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific notes how the future of both the economic order and the rules-based international system will be decided in the Indo-Pacific. China’s growing naval power, its militarisation of sea lanes and its Belt and Road Initiative indicate not only a power determined to become wealthy, but one determined to set the rules of the coming age. However, many of China’s Asian neighbours seek to defend rules over power.

With Britain looking for new opportunities abroad in the wake of Brexit and the economic and demographic realities pointing east, the report argues that the UK must reinvigorate its partnerships with historic allies in the region, not least India and Japan – while also redeveloping new “special relationships” with Commonwealth countries such as Singapore.

The report highlights that:

  • The global middle class will grow 50% by 2030, with much of that growth taking place in the Indo-Pacific – spawning hundreds of new cities, industries and opportunities.
  • Over 90% of global trade is carried by sea and that maritime trade will only increase as regional powers struggle to bring consumer goods and energy to these new cities.
  • China seeks to exert control over these sea lanes in order to protect its own sea lanes, constrain India’s rise and set the rules for the coming era.
  • The Indo-Pacific is becoming a forum for competing visions of international relations – with many of Britain’s historic allies beginning to align in loose security groupings based on respect for maritime conventions and law.
  • The UK, dependent on the rules-based order and the sea lanes in the region, will ultimately have to adopt the “engage and balance” approach that most Asian powers have adopted towards China.

While endorsing the ‘cautious engagement’ approach of Prime Minister Theresa May to China, the report recommends that Britain should:

  • Seek a number of overlapping security relationships across the Indo-Pacific with large numbers of partners – including the ‘Quad’ of the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
  • Create “special partners” in ASEAN – not least Singapore, where Britain should explore the possibility for regular ‘2+2’ meetings between the two countries’ defence and foreign ministers.
  • Renew her security relationship with Australia – a useful “node of access” for the UK, as Australia is developing closer relations with key allies including the US, Japan and France.

Standing up for the rules-based international order in the face of the challenge from China should also involve:

  • An incremental increase in Britain’s defence spending, from the current 2% of GDP to 3%. This, with a particular focus on the future of naval and air power, would equip the UK with the requisite tools to have a truly ‘global’ influence.
  • Invest in soft power diplomacy to improve ties with Asian countries. These should involve a rise in funding for language programmes at British universities, particularly in Japanese, Chinese and Hindi; and providing help financing infrastructure development across the region, to counter the Belt and Road Initiative.

Read the full report here.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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