Beijing has staked “unlawful and excessive” claims over international waters in the highly contested region, revealing a “deeply worrying strategic intent”, experts from the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) think-tank said. Chinese forces have built and occupied a series of man-made islands, developing them into fortresses bristling with missile batteries, troop barracks and even airstrips. But despite being more than 6,000 miles away, the South China Sea is vital to Britain’s long-term interests, the HJS says, with £97billion worth of UK imports and exports passing through the region.
And the best way to help maintain freedom of navigation for vessels in the area is to deploy Royal Navy warships – despite the risk of “inadvertent escalation” with Chinese vessels.
Tensions in the South China Sea have escalated in recent years following Beijing’s unchecked expansion which has seen the Asian superpower transform dozens of reefs into heavily fortified outposts.
In the disputed Spratly Islands, China has developed a trio of bases, dubbed the ‘Big Three’ by analysts.
The islands and surrounding reefs are the subject of a bitter and long-running territorial dispute, with China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines all laying claim to parts of the archipelago.
But China has seized control by militarising the region with its huge navy – tactics the HJS report warned show an “increasing willingness to challenge and act outside the rules-based system”.
The study, entitled ‘The South China Sea: Why it matters to ‘Global Britain’’, says nearly 12 percent of the UK’s seaborne trade passes through the waterway every year.
But Beijing’s claims pose a threat to continued freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, report authors Dr John Hemmings and James Rogers warned.
China has previously demanded that US Navy ships in seas close to its bases immediately change course and leave Chinese territory.
And just last month, an American warship challenged Beijing’s claims by conducting a ‘freedom of navigation operation’ close to the disputed Paracel Islands.
However, these exercises run the risk of a miscalculation which could inadvertently spark a conflict.
Last year, a Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Navy destroyer attempted to intercept a US Navy warship conducting a freedom of navigation operation in the Spratlys.
The US said the Chinese vessel came within just 40 feet of the American warship, forcing it to manoeuvre to avoid a collision.
But despite the risks, the HJS report says the UK should project its power into the South China Sea and uphold the law of the sea by carrying out its own freedom of navigation exercises in conjunction with allies.
The authors conclude: “The South China Sea may seem like a distant geopolitical theatre to the UK and therefore largely peripheral to core British national interests.
“However, nothing could be further from the truth: aside from its economic significance to British trade, which is considerable and growing, it marks a sort of litmus test for the durability of the rules-based system.”