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South China Sea: Territorial Claims

Volume 774: debated on Monday 12 September 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of the People’s Republic of China following the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favour of the Philippines in its dispute with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

My Lords, the UK has joined our G7 and EU partners in calling for the parties to pursue their claims in accordance with international law, including through the G7 leaders’ statement of 26 May and the EU statement of 15 July. My right honourable friend the former Foreign Secretary stressed in Parliament that the UK has urged respect for decisions arising from international tribunals, and Ministers have regularly raised the importance of respecting international law with their Chinese counterparts.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply and the lectures to China on international law; however, I do not see much action being taken. Surely Britain should be the beacon for the rule of international law, not least as a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council. Is there not a real danger that Britain, along with the rest of the western world, risks becoming an apologist for China in international law, as Donald Trump has been for Putin?

I thank the noble Lord for the point he makes, but our position on the South China Sea is long standing and has not changed. We have concerns about the tensions and we are committed to maintaining a peaceful maritime order under international law, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Of course, a tribunal ruling under that convention is final and binding, and we regard that as a very significant development. However, common sense and restraint have to be observed, and we look to member states to recognise the mutual benefit to all of observing international law and of abiding by the tribunal decision. If one state departs unilaterally from that, all can be prejudiced in the legitimate pursuit of navigating these seas.

My Lords, 71 years ago today, Mountbatten took the surrender of half a million Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen in Singapore. Up until the mid-1970s, we had a large fleet based in Singapore. We are today the only European power that is part of the five-power defence agreement looking at security in that region. Pretty much all our trade from Japan, China and Korea goes through the South China Sea. Should we not show more support to the Americans in trying to establish security within that region, where we are also the largest European investor? This is too important to us to allow it to drift. The Chinese claim that the nine-dash line is a nonsense, and we really do have to be more forceful about this.

I thank the noble Lord for that point. As far as the UK is concerned, the maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight is non-negotiable. As the noble Lord will be aware, in general, Royal Navy warships and aircraft exercise their right of freedom of navigation and overflight in accordance with international law, as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. United States warships have carried out a number of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, challenging Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. We fully respect the right of the United States to take that action.

My Lords, why do we continue to make joint statements with our EU partners on China, given that we declared our determination to leave the European Union and that the Minister for International Trade talks about an independent partnership with China, which in effect means we will be very dependent on China for investment and opening trade? Given that dependent relationship, it might be unwise on our own to say anything about human rights or international law.

The noble Lord makes an important point which gets to the heart of whether our relationship with China changed following the EU referendum. Our relationship with China is and will remain a clear priority for the Government. The UK and China remain committed to a comprehensive agenda for bilateral co-operation, and there have been good examples of how the two countries have worked together. In fact, they work better in partnership than many other countries in the G20. We are fully committed to our global strategic partnership for the 21st century, through which we are working together to solve global issues, build economies of the future and develop our strong trade, investment and people links.

Following the question of the noble Lord, Lord West, the Minister’s answer, and the fact that the Americans are asserting their right to freedom of navigation in the areas under dispute, will the Royal Navy be supporting our allies in that endeavour?

The United Kingdom has been very clear about two things: we regard that arbitral finding as legal and binding, and we expect other nations to respect and observe that ruling in the same vein. This is a time for restraint: diplomatic relations and dialogue are the way forward, rather than force and coercion. A lot of diplomatic activity is taking place. As I said in my earlier response to the noble Lord, Lord West, we respect the right of the United States to do whatever it considers appropriate in that area.

My Lords, the fact is that the Chinese President made it absolutely clear that, despite the binding ruling, China will continue with its view about its sovereignty and its economic zones. Picking up the point raised by my noble friend, irrespective of whether the Royal Navy will conduct the same exercises, will the Minister reassure the House that we are in touch with the United States of America to ensure that our interests are fully aligned with theirs?

As has already been observed, this is a very important trading route. About half the world’s trade goes through the South China Sea, and all international powers are very alert to the significance of that navigation route. We are pursuing active diplomacy and have made clear our concerns to China. This is a time for restraint and responsibility, and it would not be wise to precipitate the raising of tensions, although we fully accept that China has to be sensitive to the situation. Land reclamation, construction or militarisation are not conducive to reducing these tensions.