This article first appeared in the Daily Express:
Sino-British Relations - Britain must stand up to Beijing
China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei are all determined to secure their individual interests and claims within the South China Sea. But the area is contested not for its beauty, but its regional and world-wide importance. $5 trillion in ship borne trade crosses these waters every year, which represents more than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage. The South China Sea is also the main trade route for goods travelling between countries in South East Asia. But it’s not just an important shipping route, there are enormous oil and gas reserves under its seabed, reportedly the highest amount of oil outside Saudi Arabia.er.
As a result, this beautiful sea is now festooned with ammunition bunkers and mid-ocean military airfields.
It regularly makes headlines as countries seek ways to strengthen their claims and establish a hold over the disputed area.
In the last couple of weeks, a spotlight has been shone on the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of around 100 islands off the coast of the Philippines.
Back in 2016, an international tribunal in the Hague concluded that China had been pushing its luck in the waters around these islands and has no historic fishing rights to them.
I am sure readers will be unsurprised that Beijing rejects this ruling and continues to seek ways to assert its sovereignty.
Around 22nd March, hundreds of ‘civilian’ Chinese shipping boats travelled to the area to seek “shelter from the wind”.
But coming up for three weeks later, many of these fishing boats are still ‘sheltering’ among the islands... Who knew fishermen have the sort of funds needed to keep their livelihoods mothballed all this time?
This behaviour from Beijing is characteristically duplicitous and transparent.
By deploying a proxy maritime militia in the guise of civilian fishing boats, China can claim innocence and is attempting to limit the ability of the international community to call out its deceitful bid to occupy the waters surrounding the Spratly Islands.
Equally, this stratagem seeks to limit potential responses, as any military counter deployment would be spewed out in Communist Party propaganda as outright aggression against honest fishermen.
However, these actions were not isolated. In a rancid and hostile move, last week China's President, Xi Jinping, publicly offered condolences to Taiwan’s mourning families following the second worst train accident Taiwan has ever suffered, whilst simultaneously ordering fighter jet incursions into Taiwan’s air space.
Taiwan was forced to scramble fighters in response. This week, China moved a naval carrier group near Taiwan and announced that routine drills in the area would become a ‘regular’ feature.
This kind of behaviour should not surprise us.
It is a bulwark of China’s hybrid warfare, in which every lever of influence and all actors are deployed to secure its interests.
Hostile tactics also include infiltrating universities and research facilities, attacking infrastructure, economic espionage, cyber-attacks, law changes to muzzle opponents, mass surveillance, censorship, disinformation campaigns, and undermining democratic structures.
The actions we’ve seen in the South Sea and beyond reinforce that China is adept at focusing on the outcomes it wants to achieve, and directing whole-of-Government efforts at them.
The challenge of the Chinese Communist Party to us is systemic and shows no sign of dissipating.
We cannot ignore it or naively play nicely in the hope that China will curb the worst of its behaviours.
Regardless of this act of goodwill, EU representatives were struck with petty counter-sanctions when its parliamentarians voted rightly to impose sanctions on individuals perpetrating the Uyghur genocide.
Despite these provocations, we should not enter into outright confrontation, nor any form of cold war.
As the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary have set out, we must focus our offensive and defensive capabilities on the threats we face, prevent conflict wherever possible, and project our influence to secure our safety and trade in the Indo-Pacific.
Our Government’s Integrated Review set out a clear plan for delivering an Indo-Pacific tilt, as well as a greater level of security capacity building.
America is waking up to China’s challenge and recommitting to the region, while the European Union has dithered – another demonstration of why extricating ourselves from the European Union’s foreign policy through Brexit was so necessary.
The UK is willing and able to chart an independent, clear-eyed course, but we do not have to face this challenge alone.
We must continue to deepen our ties with our Five Eyes partners, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, and with Japan. But we must also strengthen the potential of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, a series of security agreements signed 50 years ago between Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.
Together, these two alliances provide a powerful network to uphold and build an even stronger international rules-based order.