The Royal Navy, China & National Security
The UK’s relationship with China has rapidly changed over the last decade. A peak of goodwill – the so-called ‘golden age’ of Sino-British relations – was reached in 2015 under the guidance of David Cameron and George Osbourne, but the crack-down in Hong Kong, the Covid pandemic, and concern about Beijing’s aggressiveness towards Western Allies rapidly changed all this. The 2021 Integrated Review declared that China was now a “systemic competitor” and “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security”,1https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/975077/Global_ Britain_in_a_Competitive_Age-_the_Integrated_Review_of_Security Defence Development_and_Foreign_Policy. pdf#page=64 a stance that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reinforced when he announced in 2022 that China“poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests.”2https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-to-the-lord-mayors-banquet-28-november-2022
Slowly, the UK’s political leadership has woken up to the reality of China’s position on the global stage. Cut off from the outside under Chairman Mao, Beijing has spent the last four decades repositioning itself at the centre of the world. The second largest economy, it accounts for almost 30% of all manufacturing, and has a dominant market position on materials and products from garments to car parts. Beijing is using its economic strength to increase its influence and, by its own admission, to remake the world order in a way that reduces the influence of the West. When Sunak said that China was a challenge to the UK’s values and interests, he was only repeating what Xi Jinping’s administration has been indicating for some time.
There is also the potential issue of a Chinese move against Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province; Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that he will see the island reunited with the mainland, and by force if necessary. The threat to reunify is not just a potential challenge for the Taiwanese, but because of the island’s dominant position in the global supply of microchips, a distinct threat to the West as well.
China, therefore, is of strategic concern to the UK. Many will think that the British military only has a role to play in facing down this challenge if relations deteriorate into conflict. However, my view is that the Royal Navy has a particular and important role to play in the shaping of the strategic environment right now. This is especially so in the Indo-Pacific, upon which the Integrated Review placed so much importance as a region for Britain to extend its interests. It is also an area where China has spent many years building up its own position.
The first way for the Navy to aid UK strategy in the Indo-Pacific is through the support of diplomatic efforts aimed at pushing back on Chinese influence and boosting British and Western influence in turn. This capability was demonstrated in 2021 when the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier group set sail on a 26,000 mile voyage that took in 40 countries, including many in Asia. Other Royal Navy ships have been contributing to wider diplomatic efforts in the region. HMS Tamar, for example, has been working alongside Allies including Australia, America, and Japan to deliver humanitarian supplies and infrastructure support to remote island communities around the Philippines under the Pacific Partnership mission. In August 2022 HMS Spey was part of an operation in the southwest Pacific aimed to protect local fishing stocks. 3https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2022/august/25/20220825-royal-navy-fights-illegal- fishing China, which operates the world’s largest fishing fleet, has been accused of illegally plundering fish stocks in the Pacific.4https://ipdefenseforum.com/2021/06/chinese-fishing-fleet-poses-threat-to-pacific-island-economies/
The problem is, these Eastern deployments are considered by some to be mere tokenism, coming as they do on the back of decades of limited Royal Navy presence there. When three ships were sent to the Asia Pacific in 2018, it was the most significant deployment to the region since the Korean War. What’s more, the ships currently deployed represent very little in terms of warfighting capability, and the use of hard power to back up diplomacy only works properly when that hard power is credible. Now that China has the largest fleet in the world, the presence of a few Offshore Patrol Vessels and periodic visits by larger ships stationed outside of the region is not as useful a diplomatic stiffener as it might be.
There is a second role for the Royal Navy in the strategic pushback against China, namely, in terms of helping to secure the UK’s national security supply chain. Research by the Evenstar Institute has shown how this supply chain is exposed to China both directly and also indirectly, through third countries that provide vital inputs to the UK but which are themselves targets of Chinese influence. Whether it is military uniforms from Cambodia, telecommunications equipment from Vietnam, or uranium from Australia, the Indo-Pacific is vital for both the military and civilian economies of the UK. Keeping the trade routes open has been something the Royal Navy has worked on for hundreds of years, and it continues to do so in conjunction with Britain’s Allies. But the Navy can also use its ability to cultivate defence ties with nations to help solidify bilateral relations with Britain, and thus contribute to the shoring up (or even expansion) of British influence.
A good example of this is Malaysia, which is of particular importance to the UK given its capabilities in the processing of rare earth minerals: These are 17 metals that are crucial to the modern economy and which have a vital function in high technology products, to the extent that the cutting off of supplies would create serious economic shock and disruption for the West, and impact its military strength. The problem is that China is responsible for 85% of global rare earth processing, a hold that eclipses OPEC’s control over the oil supply. Malaysia has 12% of the market,5https://www.fdiintelligence.com/content/interview/rare-earths-are-not-that-rare-81560 meaning that if relations with China collapsed then it would be the only realistic large-scale source of rare earth minerals for the West, including the UK.
Beijing has spent the last decade actively courting Kuala Lumpur. This has mainly been through a build-up of economic investment and political interaction, but there have also been attempts to beef-up the military relationship. The two countries held annual naval drills from 2014–2018, and Beijing also supplied four naval vessels that are now in service with the Royal Malaysian Navy.6https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/rsis/malaysia-china-defence-ties-managing-feud-in-the-south-china-sea/#. Y6M8gi2l1sw Although military ties seem to have cooled since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, China’s influence in Malaysia overall is still growing.
The UK has an ‘in’ through the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), signed in 1971 between the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. Southeast Asia’s only collective security arrangement, it has withered in recent decades, not least because of Britain’s refusal to allocate resources to it. With London showing more interest in the region – for example, becoming a Dialogue Partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – now would be a good time for the UK to push its military ties with countries there, including Malaysia, using the FPDA as the catalyst. Cynics might argue that close military connections aren’t everything, but if the UK doesn’t reach out to Malaysia militarily, then it leaves the door wide open for China to do so. Beijing has long recognised the importance of close military ties in support of a wider strategic relationship.
A major problem with the use of the Navy in these two areas is the lack of a permanent naval presence in the region. One solution would be to re-establish a naval base in the Indo- Pacific, which would not only ease logistical challenges but would signal to both China and the other countries there that the UK is serious in its intentions. It would also facilitate much easier and more effective support for both civilian diplomacy and military engagement. The signing of the AUKUS deal is the ideal vehicle to make this happen, and the positioning of a Royal Navy base near Perth or Darwin would support the renewal of Anglo-Australian relations post-Brexit.
All that said, the Royal Navy cannot take on strategic tasks without the guidance and support of the British government. At the same time, the government won’t necessarily think to use the fleet in a strategic manner unless the Navy explains what it can do to support wider British interests in the Indo-Pacific. The issue of Chinese influence impinging on British interests abroad is not going away, and the UK government should use all the tools in its armoury to push back against Beijing. The Royal Navy is one such tool that can, and should, be more expansively used.
- 1https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/975077/Global_ Britain_in_a_Competitive_Age-_the_Integrated_Review_of_Security Defence Development_and_Foreign_Policy. pdf#page=64
- 3https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2022/august/25/20220825-royal-navy-fights-illegal- fishing
- 6https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/rsis/malaysia-china-defence-ties-managing-feud-in-the-south-china-sea/#. Y6M8gi2l1sw