The Royal Navy and US Navy held joint exercises in the South China Sea last week, for the first time since China began building new military bases in those waters. The exercises sent a message to Beijing that it faces an evolving united front of nations committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in some of the world’s most vital waterways. The frigate HMS Argyll joined the USS McCampbell, a guided-missile destroyer, for nearly a week of drills and operations. This comes just a few months after HMS Albion conducted the Royal Navy’s first freedom of navigation operation last August near the contested Paracel Islands, drawing a sharp response from China.
London has repeatedly stated that the United Kingdom will increase its activities in Asian waters, in large measure as a response to the threat posed by China’s growing strength and militarisation of man-made islands in the region. Then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced in 2017 that the UK’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will steam through the South China Sea on its maiden voyage in 2021, conducting drills with the Japanese and South Korean navies. And last December, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson revealed plans to place a British military base back in eastern Asia, possibly in Singapore or Brunei, in order to have a more permanent presence in the western Pacific as Britain rethinks its foreign policy after Brexit. Taken together, these steps portend a partial reversal of the 1968 ‘East of Suez’ policy of withdrawing British forces from the from the Indo-Pacific region, which reached its apotheosis with the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.
Some might wonder why London would risk Beijing’s ire and get involved in waters far from its core national interests. It was only a year ago that Theresa May declared a new ‘golden era’ in Sino-British relations, and just two years since the first Chinese freight train arrived in London to great fanfare.