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South China Sea

Volume 678: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2020

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of China’s deep sea exploration in the South China sea on peace in that region; and if he will make a statement. (904024)

The United Kingdom is disturbed by reports of militarisation, coercion and intimidation in the South China sea. We note the presence of a Chinese research vessel in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in April and May this year, close to a Malaysian-contracted drilling operation. This has raised tensions in the region. We take no sides in sovereignty disputes. We are clear that the best way to reduce tensions in the South China sea is for all parties to resolve their disputes peacefully in accordance with the UN convention on the law of the sea. In May this year, officials raised our concerns directly with China about the recent incidents in the South China sea.

I am grateful for that reply, but it misses the bigger picture. China is tightening its grip on the South China sea, turning places such as the Spratly islands and Paracel islands into military bases, yet the west simply looks on. The UN has confirmed that this activity is actually illegal. Maritime shipping is now denied. The next step will be the airspace, and following that will be the fact that Taiwan will become all the more vulnerable. Can the Minister confirm that the UK does not approve of the nine-dash line and that we need to be more robust in standing up to China, which is taking advantage of the west’s risk-averseness?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He has a great deal of experience in this area. With regard to the nine-dash line, as I have said previously, we do not take a position on the underlying sovereignty claims in the South China sea, but we do urge all parties to be transparent: they need to clarify the extent and the legal basis of their claims. UNCLOS provides a comprehensive legal order for the seas and oceans. Any claim should be set out in a way that is consistent with UNCLOS and its arbitration rulings.

From the Himalayas to the South China sea, Beijing’s aggressive expansionism could have serious consequences for our national security, and yet our Government are absent from the global stage. The Chinese Communist party respects strength and unity and is contemptuous of weakness and division, but successive Conservative Governments since 2010 have been naive and complacent, and Beijing has exploited these weaknesses. Will the Government be making a robust statement of support for Taiwan given that Taiwanese airspace is repeatedly being buzzed by Chinese fighter jets? What steps are the Government taking to forge alliances with key partners in the EU, NATO and the Asia-Pacific democracies to build an international consensus that will enable us to push back against Beijing’s increasingly belligerent behaviour?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s question. I do not necessarily agree that we have remained silent on this; in fact, we have been leading the international community. He was present yesterday during the urgent question on the human rights violations in Xinjiang. Our approach to China remains clear-eyed, and it is rooted in our values and beliefs. It has always been the case that where we have concerns, we raise them, and where we need to intervene, we will intervene.