FOREIGN SECRETARY Boris Johnson has announced the United Kingdom’s intention to sail “two vast new aircraft carriers” through the Straits of Malacca on one of their first missions for a freedom of navigation operation, in a move that would be likely to incense China.
Presenting the 2017 Lowy Lecture at the Sydney Town Hall on Thursday night, Johnson emphasised Britain’s readiness to demonstrate commitment to “international order” with “money and a military presence” in the South China Sea.
“In the South China Sea, we urge all parties to respect freedom of navigation and international law, including the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague,” he said, asserting the UK would use its aircraft carriers to reinforce freedom of navigation.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in July 2016 China had violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on several counts, citing instances where its law enforcement vessels had breached maritime safety obligations by approaching Philippines vessels at high speed as well as damages to marine environments by Chinese development of artificial islands in the South China Sea.
“If you look at these vessels, you will see they are not only longer than the Palace of Westminster but more persuasive than most of the arguments you will hear in the House of Commons,” Johnson quipped to a laughing audience on Thursday.
The minister also pointed to a joint air force training exercise with Japan, South Korea and Malaysia in 2016.
The presence of British vessels in the Malacca Straits would likely stoke tensions with Beijing, which claims 90 percent of the South China Sea. The disputed maritime region is believed to hold a wealth of untapped oil and gas deposits.
Moreover, an estimated US$5.3 trillion of trade passes annually through the disputed maritime region, parts of which are also claimed by Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Johnson is currently on a tour of Australia along with Britain’s Defence Minister Michael Fallon after trips to New Zealand and Japan.
“We hope to send a warship to the region next year. We have not finalised exactly where that deployment will take place but we won’t be constrained by China from sailing through the South China Sea,” Fallon told Reuters on Thursday.
“We flew RAF Typhoons through the South China Sea last October and we will exercise that right whenever we next have the opportunity to do so, whenever we have ships or planes in the region.”
“We have the right of freedom of navigation and we will exercise it.” – Fallon.
Johnson also emphasised the UK would be strengthening ties in Asia after Brexit, including with its existing allies Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
“I can say tonight after leaving the EU, we will be seeking to strengthen our own national relationship with Asean as an institution,” he said.