UK, France war­ships sail to dis­puted sea


Bri­tish and French war­ships are sail­ing through the South China Sea this year to chal­lenge China’s mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the in­ter­na­tional wa­ter­way. Speak­ing at the Shangri-La Di­a­logue in Singapore, Bri­tish De­fense Min­is­ter Gavin Wil­liamson and French De­fense Min­is­ter Flo­rence Parly said send­ing the ships would pre­serve the rule-based or­der in the re­gion.

Bri­tain and France are sail­ing war­ships through the South China Sea this year to chal­lenge China’s mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the hotly con­tested wa­ter­way, their de­fense min­is­ters said on Sun­day.

The Bri­tish and French de­fense chiefs made the re­marks at the Shangril-La Di­a­logue in Singapore, echo­ing the lat­est US plan to ramp up its free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion oper­a­tions in the South China Sea.

The US oper­a­tions are aimed at coun­ter­ing Bei­jing’s ex­pand­ing mil­i­tary pres­ence in the strate­gic wa­ter­way and the lat­ter’s stance that ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes should be a mat­ter be­tween China and its Asian neigh­bors.

Bri­tish De­fense Min­is­ter Gavin Wil­liamson told the fo­rum that Bri­tain had sent three war­ships to the re­gion to op­pose ma­lign in­flu­ence and pre­serve the rule-based or­der for the long term.

Play by the rules

“We have to make it clear that na­tions need to play by the rules, and there are con­se­quences for not do­ing so,” Wil­liamson said.

Aboard the HMS Suther­land, docked in Singapore, Wil­liamson said Bri­tain’s naval de­ploy­ments were in­tended to send the “strong­est sig­nals” on the im­por­tance of free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and to keep up max­i­mum­pres­sure on North Korea.

His com­ments came a day af­ter US De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis ac­cused China of “in­tim­i­da­tion and co­er­cion” in the South China Sea and warned there would be “con­se­quences” if it con­tin­ued.

The surge of Bri­tish war­ships, which in­clude the Suther­land—an an­ti­sub­ma­rine frigate —the HMS Al­bion and HMS Ar­gyll, is the first de­ploy­ment of three vessels to the re­gion in a gen­er­a­tion.

“The rea­son that they are here and the rea­son that we are vis­it­ing is to send the strong­est of sig­nals. We be­lieve that coun­tries should play by the rules,” Wil­liamson said.

“This is even more im­por­tant at a time when storm clouds are gath­er­ing and re­gional fears are ris­ing, when more na­tions have nuclear and chem­i­cal weapons, not to men­tion the in­fringe­ment of re­gional ac­cess, free­doms and se­cu­rity,” he added.

Dis­puted territory

Wil­liamson, how­ever, de­clined to say whether Bri­tish ships would sail within 22 kilo­me­ters of a dis­puted territory or ar­ti­fi­cial is­land built by the Chi­nese, as US war­ships had done.

At the end of May, China’s mil­i­tary said it had dis­patched war­ships to chal­lenge two US Navy vessels that had passed within 22 km of the Para­cel Is­lands, an ar­chi­pel­ago in dis­puted wa­ters off the coast of Viet­nam.

China, whose claim to the Paracels is not rec­og­nized by Viet­nam, has ar­gued that pas­sage within 22 km con­sti­tutes a violation of the coun­try’s territory un­der the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea (Un­c­los).

China, how­ever, ig­nores an Un­c­los rul­ing by the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion in The Hague in­val­i­dat­ing its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea and declaring it in violation of the Philip­pines’ sov­er­eign right to fish and ex­plore for re­sources in the West Philip­pine Sea, wa­ters within the South­east Asian coun­try’s 370-km ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone in the strate­gic wa­ter­way.

China has also built ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands on seven reefs claimed by the Philip­pines in the Spratly ar­chi­pel­ago and de­vel­oped them into mil­i­tary bases. It has landed mil­i­tary planes and de­ployed an­ti­ship cruise mis­siles and sur­face-to-air mis­sile sys­tems on the “Big Three”—Kag­itin­gan, Zamora and Mis­chief reefs.

Wil­liamson stressed that Bri­tain, France and Aus­tralia had also been as­sert­ing their rights of pas­sage in the re­gion.

“We’ve been send­ing a clear mes­sage to all that the free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion is ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal,” he said.

French task group

French De­fense Min­is­ter Flo­rence Parly also told the an­nual de­fense fo­rum that a French mar­itime task group, to­gether with Bri­tish helicopters and ships, would visit Singapore next week and then sail “into cer­tain ar­eas” of the South China Sea.

With­out naming China, Parly sug­gested the war­ships would cross into “ter­ri­to­rial wa- ters” claimed by Bei­jing and en­vi­sioned a po­ten­tial en­counter with its mil­i­tary.

“At some point a stern voice in­trudes into the transpon­der and tells us to sail away from sup­pos­edly ‘ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters,’” she said.

“But our com­man­der then calmly replies that he will sail forth, be­cause these, un­der in­ter­na­tional law, are in­deed in­ter­na­tional wa­ters,” she added.

Although France is not a claimant in the South China Sea dis­putes, such ex­er­cises con­ducted “on a reg­u­lar ba­sis with al­lies and friends” are con­tribut­ing to a rule-based or­der, ac­cord­ing to Parly.

“By ex­er­cis­ing our free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion, we also place our­selves in the po­si­tion of a per­sis­tent ob­jec­tor to the cre­ation of any claim to de facto sovereignty on the is­lands,” she said.

In­stead of ac­cept­ing the sit­u­a­tion as a fait ac­com­pli, Parly said France should ques­tion it, oth­er­wise it would be estab­lished as a right.

Europe mo­bi­liz­ing

“I be­lieve we should broaden this ef­fort even fur­ther,” Parly said, adding that Europe was mo­bi­liz­ing more widely to sup­port this endeavor and there were also Ger­man ob­servers on board.

The United States is re­port­edly con­sid­er­ing a more as­sertive ap­proach in the re­gion that, com­pared to their pre­vi­ous free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion oper­a­tions, could in­volve longer pa­trols, more ships and closer sur­veil­lance of Chi­nese fa­cil­i­ties such as elec­tronic jam­ming equip­ment and ad­vanced mil­i­tary radars.

US of­fi­cials are also push­ing in­ter­na­tional al­lies and part­ners to in­crease their own naval de­ploy­ments through the vi­tal trade route as the Chi­nese strengthen their mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the Para­cel and Spratly is­lands.

“But violation of China’s sovereignty will not be al­lowed,” said Lt. Gen. He Lei, vice pres­i­dent of the Chi­nese Academy of Mil­i­tary Sci­ence and head of China’s del­e­ga­tion to the Shangri-La Di­a­logue.


NAVAL MIS­SION The an­ti­sub­ma­rine frigate HMSSuther­land will join the HMSAl­bion and the HMSAr­gyll in Bri­tain’s first naval de­ploy­ment to the South China Sea in a gen­er­a­tion.

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