Written by Alex Calvo.

Going beyond the British Government’s cautious posture to date, Her Majesty’s defence minister, the Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, said that “When it comes to China we’re clear”, stating that while London wants to “work more closely with” Beijing, with the purpose of binding the PRC “into the rules based international order”, the UK also wishes to see “maritime and other disputes settled peacefully in accordance with international law”. Furthermore, and this is what makes his words more noteworthy, Fallon went on to say that “provocative behaviour in the South China Sea destabilises the region”, adding that it “increases the risk of miscalculation”.

Fallon was speaking at Washington-based think-tank Atlantic Council, in Washington, on 11 December. In his address, titled “Stronger defence in a more dangerous world”, the minister painted an optimistic view of future defence capabilities, stressed shared values and interests with the United States, emphasized defence industry integration between the two countries, and overall sought to underline a view of the United Kingdom as a major net security provider. While none of this is new, there are two aspects to note for observers interested in the Indo-Pacific Region. First of all, that following the publication of the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, British officials now enjoy more credibility when it comes to foreign policy, since at the end of the day any policy needs to be backed up with deeds, not just words, and while going beyond the military, the ability to project force is one of the essential pillars of any foreign policy. While some uncertainty remains concerning the exact shape of the UK’s military, and as always the devil is in the detail, the consensus among observers is that, at least in the naval realm, the Review stops and to a limited extent reverses the deep cuts suffered over the last decade. Second, London is looking beyond Europe and the Atlantic, and signalling a willingness to engage with partners in other regions of the world.

The defence minister said that the UK was “looking beyond Europe’s borders, doubling peace keeping efforts in Africa and strengthening our hand in the Asia Pacific”, and next referred specifically to two countries. India, with which “We’re elevating our defence relationship” with “more joint military exercises and co-operation on technology and manufacturing” and Japan, with which “We’re enhancing our relationship”. Fallon noted that the first 2+2 (foreign and defence ministers) meeting took place in January in London, and the second one is scheduled for January 2016 in Tokyo. While neither his words, nor the Review, point at a significantly increased military presence in the Indo-Pacific, the minister stressed that “We’re also investing more than $750 milion over the next decade…expanding our presence with British Defence Staffs in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Africa”. Thus, London’s policy is likely to be based more on partnerships with regional actors, increased bilateral cooperation, and an upgrade of training, exchange, and military diplomatic, staff.

The passage devoted to India in the SDSR 2015 (5.76) is rather generic, but says that the UK is working to “to deepen our bilateral partnership”, adding that it “includes a closer strategic partnership on diplomatic, defence and security issues, including terrorism, extremism, cyber, nuclear proliferation, and conflict”. While most mentions of the country in this document fall within the economic and trade arena, the text explains that London supports UN Security Council reform to include New Delhi and Tokyo. Concerning Japan, the country is listed as one of “our traditional allies and partners”, and furthermore described as “our closest security partner in Asia”, with which to “build on our defence cooperation, based on successful operational cooperation including on counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia” while continuing to “explore longer term opportunities for closer defence engagement and defence industrial collaboration”.

Thus, while the SDSR already refers to growing defence relations with partners in the Indo-Pacific, albeit on rather broad and generic terms, the defence minister’s words in Washington point out at one of the main sources of tension in the region over the last few months. If Fallon had stopped at wishing a peaceful solution to territorial problems, it may have looked as just a proforma appeal to moderation and dialogue. However, the defence minister went much further, labelling Beijing’s behaviour as “provocative”, saying it “destabilises the region”, and expressing his concern that it “increases the risk of miscalculation”. The word “provocative” is unlikely to go down well in Beijing, making it clear as it does that Fallon was not seeing the parties to the South China Sea dispute as being on the same plane. Such expressions are a reminder of how China, through her relentless construction activities and uncompromising stance, is indeed bringing together both regional and extra-regional powers, sharing their concerns. While this is no guarantee of any coordinated action, it shows how the PRC’s strategy of seeking bilateral negotiations is in crisis. An alternative explanation is that Beijing has never actually believed in bilateral negotiations (with the partial delimitation agreement with Vietnam perhaps the exception), and that she is ready to risk a certain backlash which she believes will not effectively prevent her from completing the construction of a network of artificial islands supporting mixed (military and “civilian”) forces in the South China Sea. However, while nobody has seriously challenged this construction program, other than with words and still unclear FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation operations), the risk remains, as clearly noted by the defence minister, that sooner or later Beijing’s actions may be confronted, and that not expecting it, China will engage in a miscalculation, opening the doors to an armed conflict. In particular, it would be a grave mistake to assume that Tokyo can allow the South China Sea to fall, as clear from current defence support negotiations with Manila.

It may come as a surprise to hear such warnings from a British minister, given that recent commentary on London’s policy towards the Indo-Pacific has centered on trade and investment links, with some observers going as far as criticizing the Cameron administration for excessively stressing exports promotion, to the detriment of national security. The recent state visit by PRC President Xi Jinping, and British participation in China’s AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), reinforced such perceptions. However, Fallon’s address in Washington may perhaps provide a bit of balance, and serve as a reminder that British policy towards China, while pragmatic and to a large extent accommodating, does not simply consist of uncritically tolerating each and every Chinese move. Thus, London may discreetly upgrade her profile in the South China Sea, and as pointed out in the SDSR 2015, deepen her defence industry cooperation, and bilateral military relation, with both New Delhi and Tokyo, two countries whose national security demands that it does not become “Lake Beijing”, and which do not only retain a keen interest in its fate, but are working to help nations like Vietnam and the Philippines develop their coastguard and military capabilities. Taking this a step further may involve participation in multinational naval patrols and rotational land deployments, but such ideas have not left the drawing board yet, and the old ambition to see a NATO-like regional mutual-defence organization remains a far-fetched, although undoubtedly necessary, dream. Concerning multinational patrols, a possibility could be to start with air patrols, possibly beginning with a focus on search and rescue and environmental monitoring.

There are two further considerations concerning British policy towards the South China Sea. The principle, embodied in UNSC Resolution 502 passed after the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, that force should not be used in advancing territorial claims, is at stake in the South China Sea, giving London an incentive to keep an eye and help prevent a different paradigm emerge. In doing so, the United Kingdom cannot delegate her policy to the European Union, given that having failed to prevent the constant use of non-lethal force against Gibraltar, Brussels is in no position to oppose similar policies in the South China Sea.

To conclude, we can say that Defence Minister Fallon’s words in Washington signal a determination to go beyond proforma references to peaceful resolution to disputes in accordance with international law, and confirm London’s willingness to increase her security and defence profile beyond the Atlantic and Europe, in line with the SDSR 2015. While British policy towards China is likely to remain pragmatic and focused on trade and investment, London could well join a growing number of countries taking discrete steps to help maritime democracies develop the necessary capabilities to confront territorial expansion. This could take the form, in the defence industry arena, of cooperation with Japan. Participation in multinational patrols would require a security architecture not yet in place, but we could see more frequent bilateral exercises.

Alex Calvo, is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo. Image credit: CC by Ash Carter DOD/Flickr.