The British Royal Navy’s HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious transport dock, conducted a freedom of navigation patrol (FON) in waters near the Paracel islands (Xisha Qundao in Chinese) in the South China Sea in late August. The HMS Albion’s patrol was a traditional assertion of freedom of navigation on the high seas unlike the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) of the U.S. Navy that are designed to challenge what the United States views as excessive maritime claims. This difference illustrates variations in approach by allies to join FON in the South China Sea.
China, Vietnam, and Taiwan all claim the Paracel islands. In January 1974, China resorted to force to seize South Vietnamese occupied features in the Paracel islands. Beijing angrily denounced that the HMS Albion sailed within its territorial waters around the Paracels without seeking prior approval. An anonymous British source nonetheless notes that the royal warship did not enter the 12 nautical mile limit of any feature in the Paracels, but its operation was conducted in a way invalidating China’s excessive maritime claim in the area. After the operation, the HMS Albion sailed to Ho Chi Minh City for a four-day visit to Vietnam from September 3.
The patrol by the British warship demonstrated the U.K.’s serious intention to engage in Southeast Asian region. It signaled that the Royal Navy is likely to be a regular party patrolling the South China Sea. As Ian Storey and Euan Graham assert, the patrol would make U.S. happy as it resonated with Washington’s call for upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Recently, the UK and Australia made public their agreement to strengthen military cooperation. The British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is to be deployed to the Pacific as early as 2020 and will sail side by side with Australian navy ships.
The Royal Navy has not elucidated the objective of the operation. Its spokesperson only informed in brief that “HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.” However, regional observers widely interpreted it and previous patrols as a challenge to China’s excessive claims in the Paracels in particular and the South China Sea in general.
Regarding the Paracel islands, China unilaterally declared the composition of all straight lines connecting the 28 adjacent base points in 1996. The straight baselines encircling the Paracels form internal waters area within the base points. At the same time, China claims a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles around the Paracel islands. As Carl Thayer has asserted, China’s declaration of straight baselines with the Paracel islands is not compatible with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS). According to the convention, drawing straight baselines is only applicable to archipelagic states. Noticeably, the Arbitration Court in Hague, in its ruling on 12 July 2016, invalidated China’s claimed historic rights to the sea areas within the notorious “nine-dash line” that also embraces the Paracel islands.
Beijing only made official comments after Western media outlets cited anonymous British defence sources about the HMS Albion naval patrol. Similar to the U.S. FONOPs, China sent vocal warnings, its warship and fighter jets to shadow the HMS Albion operation. In almost a week later, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs charged that the operational assertion was a provocation, violation of its domestic law, relevant international law and a breach of its sovereignty. China warned that additional operations would be detrimental to bilateral relations, regional peace and stability. Noticeably, China reactions were restrained both verbally and its actions at sea avoided any direct confrontation with the British warship thus preventing any escalation. However, China demonstrated its resolve by cancelling the important post-Brexit trade deal that London has been pursuing with Beijing because of the HMS Albion challenge.
The HMS Albion indeed added up to the external powers’ endeavor to uphold the right of free access to the waterways [and airway] in the South China Sea. In a relevant move, France and the U.K. conducted a joint freedom of navigation patrol through Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross Reefs in the Spratly islands last June as announced at the 17th Asia Security Summit, or Shangri-La Dialogue 2018. Both London and Paris considered themselves Indo-Pacific powers and committed to protecting the free passage through the strategic sea line of communications in Southeast Asia pursuant to international maritime law. Beside the two publicized patrols, both [and together with Australia] have maintained their naval operations in the area. France, for instance, sailed at least five ships in the South China Sea in 2017.
The U.S. has conducted eleven publicized FONOPs to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea since October 2015. Five FONOPs in the Paracels were carried out by the USS Curtis Wilbur (January 2016), the USS Decatur (October 2016), the USS Stethem (July 2017), the USS Chafee (October 2017) and the first-ever joint operation by the USS Higgins and USS Antietam (May 2018). The USS Lassen (October 2015), the USS William P. Lawrence (May 2016), the USS Dewey (May 2017), the USS John S. McCain (August 2017), and the USS Mustin (March 2018) conducted the five FONOPs in the Spratlys. The FONOP by the USS Hopper in January 2018 was undertaken at Scarborough Shoal. Despite this, South China Sea expert Gregory Poling assessed that the U.S. current strategy had failed and FONOPs were ineffective.
Unfortunately, the U.S. military dynamics in the region, during and after President Barack Obama’s pivot and rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific, have not restrained China from constructing artificial islands and military bases in the South China Sea. China has finished the constructions of seven artificial islands and equipped them with modern offensive and defensive military capabilities. China has militarized the South China Sea with the installation of jamming communications and radar systems in Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, anti-ship cruise missiles YJ-12B and surface-to-air missile systems HQ-9B on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef. In addition, China temporarily deployed H-6K nuclear capable bombers in Woody Island. The question from now on is to what extent China will militarize the artificial islands.
States with vested interests in the South China Sea are more concerned with China’s increasing militarization of artificial islands in the region. Their concern has heightened due to the increased ambiguity of the U.S. policy in Asia. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s elucidation of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific is not sufficient to shore up the international rules-based order. The new Trump Administration policy is mainly economic-centric and interestingly falls short in security substance. Regional states can hardly find reassurance in the Trump Administration’s plan to deal with China’s fait accompli in the South China Sea. In addition, U.S. financial commitments under the new Indo-Pacific vision is too meagre compared to China’s expansive and ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. It would be naïve to think that Secretary Pompeo’s commitment to ASEAN’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific Region will convince skeptics of U.S. resolve to push back against China.
The Franco-English joint patrol and the HMS Albion operation exemplified the increased engagement of other external powers in the South China Sea dispute. Southeast Asian states are likely to respond with caution to recent developments. The engagement of additional external powers goes in tandem with the new outward looking regionalism promoted by inclusive ASEAN over the last few decades. Nonetheless, ASEAN states should be concerned about their region once again becoming an arena for rivalry among the major powers. This is not the outcome that regional states expected after more than five decades of regional building.
Tuan Anh Luc is a PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.