Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.
In the age of lockdown, with most of us confined most of us to our homes and with the news bulletins dominated by Coronavirus, it can feel very much like the world is standing still.
However, in the South China Sea, things are moving dangerously quickly.
Despite the current pandemic and its impact on China, the Chinese Communist Party has stepped up its campaign to dominate this critical waterway.
Blue Sea 2020, the campaign to prevent offshore oil and gas exploration in territorial waters claimed by other nations, continues apace, as does the incredible growth of the People Liberation Army (PLA – or PLAN, with its navy)
Little commented on in the West, between 2014 and 2018, China launched more submarines, warships, amphibious vessels, and auxiliaries than the number of ships currently serving in the individual navies of Germany, India, Spain or the United Kingdom.
Numbering 335 vessels, the fleet, outnumbering the USAs 296, is a demonstration of the determination to make good on the plan of President Hu Jintao in 2012 to transform China into a ‘Maritime Power’.
No one has more right to be worried about this development than the other countries around the South China Sea which, despite its name, is not simply the nautical area below southern China.
It stretches from Malaysia to the Philippines, from Vietnam to the edge of Indonesia.
It encompasses an entire region of over 1,400,000 square miles.
And China lays claim to almost all of it, including large chunks of what are internationally agreed as the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines.
Last month, China created two new administrative districts for the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands, sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel operating in contested waters and Indonesian vessels reported increased surveillance activity by aggressive Chinese warships.
China’s claim in the region is encircled by a demarcation line dubbed the “nine-dash line”, though a tenth dash was added in 2013 to encircle the entirety of the independent nation of Taiwan.
China has made vague claims over this area in for over seventy years and, in a ruling at the Court of Arbitration at the Hague in 2016, it was ruled that the country had no legal right to the territory in the nine-dash line, having never historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or the resources contained within it.
Supported by the overwhelming majority of countries, including the UK, the EU, and the USA, the ruling was opposed by Russia, Syria and China. Instead of ceasing its illegal activity, it instead escalated its activities in the region building it’s ‘Great Wall of Sand’ – a series of artificial islands in an attempt to claim the waters.
It is easy to see why China wants to control the lion’s share of these waters.
In addition to the huge oil reserves which lie under the sea bed, one-third of global shipping passes through the South China Sea, including a great share of Chinese exports.
The value of trade passing through the sea is valued at over three trillion US dollars a year.
The region is also home to huge fish stocks – a third of the world’s marine biodiversity is believed to reside in the South China Sea.
These fisheries are critical to ensuring economic and food stability for millions of people in neighbouring countries.
China’s attempts to frustrate the development of offshore oil and gas facilities developed by other South China Sea nations is a genuine threat to global energy security.
Every day over 1.6 million barrels of oil are shipped through the Strait of Malacca. Chinese activity in the South China Sea threatens to disrupt this supply line.
Luckily the West is not simply standing by. In the past two weeks, US and Australian warships have repeatedly sailed into the waters, asserting, according to Cmdr Reann Mommsen of the US 7th Fleet “…navigational rights and freedoms, consistent with international law.”
But why should we in Britain care? What interest has Britain in this patch of water on the other side of the world?
Well, this is not about Britain’s interests although they are considerable – nearly 12 per cent of our seaborne trade, with a value of £97 billion, passes through the South China Sea each year.
But it is a fight in Britain’s interests.
This is about upholding international law and the rules-based international order.
As we look to a post-Covid world, the importance of protecting the integrity of our international system has never been more important.
Trade deals, vitally important that they are, remain secondary to ensuring that global trade can continue unimpeded and that the rights of smaller nations are not crushed by regional bullies.
We must step up.
In the South China Sea, enhanced and increased British freedom of navigation exercises alongside our allies would challenge Chinese aggression.
Adopting the new Pentagon strategy, “strategic predictability, operational unpredictability”, would be welcomed by our allies in the region and demonstrate our commitment to defend and uphold free trade and the rules based order.
This is Global Britain’s moment.
It is incredibly positive that Queen Elizabeth is set to sail to the Asia Pacific region on her first operational deployment in 2021, accompanied by F-35s from the US Marine Corps.
But we need, now, to invest in and build more for our Royal Navy.
Britain’s ship building strategy was a good start – but progress is slow.
Our first bases East of Suez in fifty years are welcome, but without anything to project from them, mostly sitting idle.
We need more frigates, destroyers and more sailors to man them. We have a responsibility to maintain freedom on the high seas.
Nowhere is that more under threat than in the waters of South East Asia.
Now is the time to make good on the words of former Prime Minister, Theresa May, on the deck of Queen Elizabeth in August 2017 –
“Britain can be proud of this ship, and what it represents. It sends a clear signal that as Britain forges a new, positive, confident role for ourselves on the world stage in the years ahead, we are determined to remain a fully engaged global power, working closely with our friends and allies around the world.
As a leading member of NATO, the foremost military power in Europe and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Britain has an enduring responsibility to help sustain the international rules-based order, and to defend the liberal values which underpin it.”
The fight for the South China Sea is underway. We cannot let the enemies of freedom win it.