January 31, 2019
By John Hemmings; James Rogers
On 31st August 2018, HMS Albion, one of the Royal Navy’s amphibious assault ships, passed through the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) immediately informed its crew that they had strayed into Chinese sovereign territory, while sending naval and air assets to interdict the British warship. This was the United Kingdom’s (UK) first known attempt at a modern “Freedom of Navigation Operation” in the South China Sea.
In this Policy Paper, Dr. John Hemmings and James Rogers look at the geopolitical significance of the South China Sea to the UK. They identify five key reasons as to why the South China Sea matters to British interests, before moving on to focus on the PRC’s revisionist activity there, which threatens to dislocate the Law of the Sea and disrupt the wider rules-based international order. The Policy Paper concludes by asking if the time is ripe for the UK and the Royal Navy to adopt a more formal and transparent Freedom of Navigation Policy to help uphold the Law of the Sea and dissuade revisionists from hostile, illegal and/or excessive activities. As such, this Policy Paper proposes that the Royal Navy is not only bolstered to meet the growing challenge from the PRC and other revisionist states, but also that it maintains a persistent, if not permanent, naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region, and Southeast Asia and the South China Sea in particular.