Philippine Daily Inquirer
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.
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.
“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.