Times: "Royal Navy Avoids Conflict With China In Disputed Territory"


War Hero
"British naval vessels in the South China Sea are avoiding the 12 mile zone around newly constructed military bases that China has constructed on disputed rocks.

Gavin Williamson, the British defence secretary, yesterday finished a three-day tour of southeast Asia in which he boasted of British “determination” to stand up against the nuclear threat of North Korea and the threat to navigation by China in the South China Sea.

But apart from two frigates and one amphibious warship, rotated one at a time, Britain is doing far less than the United States in the South China Sea. According to British government sources, Royal Navy vessels dispatched to east Asia are under orders to avoid the tactics of the US navy, which is sailing its vessels close to the rocks and reefs occupied by China, in an assertion of the right of all shipping to pass freely through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, denounced China for its “militarisation” of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion of international trade passes by ship each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim some of the hundreds of reefs and small islands in the sea, but since 2014 China has strengthened its claim to virtually all the South China Sea by concreting over reefs to build military airports equipped with missiles and aircraft.

“Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion,” Mr Mattis said at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a meeting of defence ministers in Singapore organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. “China’s militarisation of the Spratlys is also in direct contradiction to President Xi’s 2015 public assurances.”

The US has withdrawn an invitation to take part in the world’s biggest naval exercises later this year. “But that’s a relatively small consequence, and I believe there are much larger consequences in the future,” Mr Mattis said.

US navy warships of the Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, as well as military planes, have repeatedly passed close to and above islands such as Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef, where they were confronted by Chinese naval vessels and planes broadcasting aggressive warnings. During his public appearances in the past few days, Mr Williamson has tried to give the impression that Britain is involved in a similar mission.

“Storm clouds are gathering and regional fears are rising,” he said, on the deck of HMS Sutherland, the British anti-submarine frigate presently at anchor in Singapore. “We’re determined to keep standing up for what’s right.

“The message from the decks of HMS Sutherland couldn’t be clearer. Whatever lies around the corner, you’ll find us reaching out, defending liberties, advancing trade, and acting in the words of HMS Sutherland’s great motto: ‘without fear’.”

However, British ships are sticking to undisputedly international waters. They are “exercising rights of free passage”, in Mr Williamson’s words, but are doing no more than hundreds of unarmed merchant vessels do daily.

Even this cautious approach draws the attention of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy, which sends its warships to follow the British vessels. In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague struck down China’s claims to rocks and reefs close to the Philippines, but China has rejected any challenges to its sovereignty.

“It is China’s sovereign and legal right for China to place our army and military weapons there,” He Lei, lieutenant-general of the PLA said in Singapore. “We see any country that tries to make noise about this as interfering in our internal affairs.”"

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