South China Sea standoff: How UK warned China ‘we will intervene’ amid US clash

The warning was issued by the then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson amid increasing concerns that the South China Sea region could be plunged into accidental conflict. In February 2019, Mr Williamson indicated in a speech that the UK “may have to intervene” in the future to confront China as it continues to “flout international law” and is “resurgent” in rebuilding its armed forces. He also said that the first operational mission of the HMS Queen Elizabeth would include the Pacific region.

While the region is primarily contested by the US and China, the UK also has a keen interest in the region.

One reason is that a notable 12 percent of British trade passes through the South China Sea each year.

Maritime shipping is nine percent of global trade according to the same figures and given the region’s growing importance an increase is likely.

This could present a big opportunity for the UK to get ahead of its European rivals should departure from the EU be completed, but with opportunity also comes risk in the form of a diplomatically aggressive China.

In December, James Rogers of the Henry Jackson Society told the UK must stand up to China in the region.

He said: “The UK should take a greater interest in the region for economic and strategic reasons. This means we must step up our naval presence.

“Some of the UK’s closest allies and partners – the US, Australia and Japan – have pervasive interest in the region.

“If we want American support in Europe, we need to assist the US in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in challenging China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea.

“We should not conduct our foreign policy based on what China wants. As we are one of the world’s largest markets and importers, China is in part dependent on us for selling its goods.

“The relationship is not asymmetric: China needs British know-how and investment to develop. We must never lose sight of that fact, or allow Beijing to shape discourse to encourage us into thinking about it.”

The UK has mounted challenges to Chinese forces in the past, sending vessels near its military bases within its waters claim – deemed illegal by international bodies.

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Hostility between China and the UK spiked in September last year, when Britain announced it would send its warship HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region, sparking fury in Beijing.

The UK has periodically sent ships to the South China Sea to help other powers defy China’s controversial Nine-Dash Line claim.

In September 2018, a similar waters patrol was undertaken aboard the UK’s HMS Albion.

However, as Reuters reported at the time, the encounter didn’t result in any hostility.

Beijing sent did send a chilling warning in response to the action though, telling those in London that “China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty and security.”

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