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South China Sea: Royal Navy Deployment

Volume 793: debated on Thursday 1 November 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the implications of deployment of the Royal Navy in the South China Sea for efforts to develop trade relations with China.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare an interest as director of Ensis Strategic, a company promoting UK-China trade.

My Lords, the purpose of the Royal Navy’s presence in east Asia is to project the UK’s global role, enforce sanctions in DPRK and uphold our commitment to regional stability, freedom of navigation and international law. We do not anticipate that this commitment will affect our trade relations with China.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Policy, however, is always a question of balance, and the balance here seems to be between apparent bellicosity on the other side of the world and a post-Brexit free trade agreement with the world’s second-largest economy. May I take it that the Minister favours the latter as the priority for the UK’s best interests?

There is a balance; I do not think that the two issues should be conflated. The UK has a high level of ambition for the trade and investment partnership with China, as we want to work with China to increase trade and investment flows, improve market access and set mutual ambition for a future relationship. That means that we can be frank with China, which is a valued partner. We of course also respect the rights under the international law of the sea, not least the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The UK plays an important role in not just respecting it but upholding it.

Has my noble friend seen some reports of signs of a rapprochement between Japan and China despite 80 years of enormous enmity and many disputes, including, obviously, disputes about the South China Sea? Does she agree that these closer relations, as they are called, between the second and third largest industrial powers in the world, which are both immense markets for our future exports, are thoroughly to be welcomed, and that HMG should be supporting them very strongly indeed?

We warmly welcome any suggestion that there may be an improvement in relationships between two important countries such as my noble friend describes. He is absolutely correct that both countries are important trading destinations for the UK. In fact, China has become the UK’s largest goods and services export destination outside of Europe and North America, so if there is a rapprochement between China and Japan, that is to be welcomed.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that China’s annexing of large chunks of the high seas is completely unacceptable? Does she further agree that, as a nation that depends on over 90% of our trade by sea, we should exercise freedom of the seas wherever it is challenged, and therefore that the Royal Navy’s endeavours in that respect should be applauded?

Yes; the UK’s long-standing position on the South China Seas remains unchanged. We take no sides in the sovereignty disputes, but our commitment is to international law, the upholding of existing arbitrations and freedom of navigation and overflight. We encourage all parties to settle their disputes peacefully through the existing legal mechanisms, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

My Lords, Boris Johnson, when Foreign Secretary, talked about sending an entire task force through the Malacca Straits to the South China Sea, or wherever. Do the Government see that as one of their priorities, perhaps spending more time in the Pacific than in the Atlantic as we move to being global rather than European, or are we to continue to send just the odd frigate from time to time, hoping that no one will attack it while it is there on its own?

Any Royal Naval deployments are clearly reflected upon at length and planned very carefully by the high naval command, and that would be the case for existing operations or any potential future operations.

My Lords, the Minister will know that we are the largest European investor in south-east Asia and the Pacific Rim, and that $3 trillion-worth of trade passes through the South China Sea. It is absolutely crucial and we cannot let any nation stop freedom of navigation through there, or allow China to make that effectively an inland sea. However—today is the 104th anniversary of the Battle of Coronel, where in the Pacific, I fear, a British squadron was not just beaten but almost annihilated, with the loss of several thousand sailors. That brings home the fact that if you are to show presence out there, which is important for stability, there needs to be backup, and there need to be sufficient ships and capability to do it. Does the Minister not believe that we need to put some effort into getting some more ships?

Why am I not surprised, my Lords? I realise that no navy in the world is big enough to satisfy the noble Lord’s insatiable appetite for frigates. It is still the Government’s intention to order eight Type 26 frigates but also, as I think the noble Lord knows, to order several of the new Type 31e frigates, which we believe will fulfil a multipurpose role. The Royal Navy is a very important part of our defence capability, and the Government are committed to doing everything they can to support the Navy in its endeavours.

My Lords, the key issue is of course the protection of international shipping lines, which noble Lords have referred to. In fact, the last time my noble friend mentioned the value of trade, the Minister said it was worth $4 trillion, so I do not know what has happened.

So I have been able to correct my noble friend. When the noble Earl, Lord Howe, responded to this issue when it was last raised, he said that ultimately, our actions will be judged by our allies. Obviously, the balance that needs to be struck involves our trading partners throughout the Pacific Rim. What are we doing to ensure that concerted action takes place to defend international shipping rights?

The UK is playing a very significant role in that respect. I have outlined the Government’s attitude in relation to the South China Sea; that is a clear position. I emphasise that we do not take sides on the sovereignty issue but we are disturbed by reports of any militarisation, for example, of the South China Sea and any threat or implied threat of force. We oppose any action that changes the facts on the ground, raises tension and hinders the chances of peaceful settlement of these disputes.