Chinese state-run media has blasted London for its plans to send a warship through the disputed South China Sea next month, saying that “by acting tough against China, Britain’s Ministry of Defence is trying to validate its existence and grab attention.”
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said Tuesday during a visit to Australia that the HMS Sutherland anti-submarine frigate would conduct a freedom of navigation patrol through the strategic waterway as Britain, the U.S., Australia and other countries look to “assert our values” there.
The tabloid Global Times newspaper, known for its strident nationalist stance, said Williamson needed to state clearly the purpose of the mission.
“If not provocation, the Royal Navy should behave modestly when passing through the South China Sea,” it said in an English-language editorial published late Tuesday.
China claims nearly all of the resource-rich waterway and has been turning reefs and islets into islands and installing military facilities such as runways and equipment on them.
The U.S. has criticized the Chinese militarization of its South China Sea islands, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. It has conducted numerous so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the area in recent years.
Beijing has repeatedly accused countries outside the region — typically a reference to Washington and Tokyo — of trying to provoke trouble in the South China Sea as China and its neighbors work to resolve the matter via a diplomatic approach.
But Williamson said in an interview with Australian media that the U.S. would not be able to adequately focus on the issue alone, saying that Washington “was looking for other countries to do more.”
Collin Koh, a specialist in regional naval affairs at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the message from London was aimed at shoring up support from major regional players, including Japan, Australia and even India.
“But … there’s a much higher chance that they prefer to sit out from doing FONOPs and poking China right in the eye,” he said. “What they’ll do, at best, is make more regular forays in the region, doing port calls and engaging in more joint training and exercises to make [their] presence felt and to show support in such manner.”
Koh said that while he believed the British plan was “overhyped,” and that the U.S. Navy would remain the “primary FONOP player,” the Chinese reaction highlighted its fears that the South China Sea dispute could once again return to prominence in capitals across the globe.
“So far it’s evident that extra-regional powers are increasingly looking at and taking an interest in the South China Sea,” he said.
“So the stark warning is meant to forestall a growing momentum of international opinion and support” for the U.S. line of thinking on the row, he said. “And this broadly ties with China’s fear of having the disputes internationalized.”