The Chinese government have responded to Sir Kim Darroch’s claims that the UK plans to deploy its new aircraft carriers to the South China Sea to exercise the right to “freedom of navigation” despite renewed Chinese territorial claims. Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, made the announcement earlier this month when speaking at an event in Washington during which he said;
Certainly, as we bring our two new aircraft carriers on stream in 2020 and as we renew and update our defence forces, they will be seen in the Pacific…And we absolutely share the objective of this U.S. administration, and the next one, to protect freedom of navigation and to keep sea routes and air routes open.
Darroch made the announcement as the Royal Air Force sent a flight of Typhoon FGR.4s to Japan for historic military exercises as part of what both countries have said is a tightening of security ties. Japan is one of several countries at odds with China over territorial claims in the region and the UK’s new interest in working closer with Tokyo on security matters has not gone unnoticed by Beijing.
The Chinese state-owned news agency, Xinhua News, reported that if Britain was to get more involved in military operations that were contrary to Chinese interests such as deliberately sailing warships in disputed waters then it would not be in London’s best interests economically. Xinhua effectively reported that Chinese investment in the post-Brexit UK would likely be reduced in protest. According to the Asia Times, between 2005 and 2015 the Chinese invested £34.3 billion pounds in the UK with the highest profile project being the admittedly problematic China General Nuclear Power Company Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.
If economical threats were not enough, this week saw the People’s Liberation Army Navy conduct their first major live fire exercise involving their own carrier, the Liaoning. The carrier deployed ten of its Sukhoi Su-33-inspired J-15 multi-role combat aircraft that carried out air-to-air and air-to-ground training including live weaponry. As well as the carrier, ten warships and supporting vessels also participated in the exercise showing that China is realising its ambition of becoming a major naval power.
The question therefore becomes what is more important to London; maintaining the special military relationship with the US under a Trump presidency which has promised to maintain “peace through strength” regarding China or encouraging Beijing to continue to invest in the UK post-Brexit and step back from its defence ties with the US and Japan?
It seems for the time being, despite Darroch’s choice of words in Washington, the UK is still sitting on the fence. The British embassy in Washington later stated that any British military forces deployed in the region would use “internationally-recognised air ways and waters” rather than conduct the more aggressive “freedom of navigation” operations the US and Japan carry out in areas disputed by China. That may change however if come January when Donald Trump takes office he demands London take a stronger approach to China.