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Britain’s Gunboat Diplomacy in the South China Sea

Sending its new aircraft carrier to the South China Sea is another desperate attempt by the former power to punch above its weight class.

Credit: Visit Britain


  • Sending its new aircraft carrier to the South China Sea is another desperate attempt by the former power to punch above its weight class.
  • Britain’s armed forces are at their smallest number since the Napoleonic wars. At about 80,000, they would not even fill Wembley stadium.
  • One wonders how sending an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea fits into Britain’s post-Brexit plans for a new trade deal with China.
  • The lack of an economic strategy on the UK’s part is not even remotely comparable to the long-term thinking in China.

Never mind that Brexit is far from finished – even though it is a question of grave consequence for the future of all Britons. While the May government continues its stunningly risky, happy-go-lucky style of negotiating with the EU27, the rest of the world gets to observe another case that displays Brexit-like nostalgia for Britain’s long lost imperial grandeur.

The event could be observed in London on February 11, 2019. On that day, Gavin Williamson, the UK defense secretary, said there are plans to sail the country’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (sic!) across the oceans to put China in its place by cruising the ship majestically into the South China Sea.

(One wonders what the 92-year old queen feels about her namesake being thus deployed).

Yes, China has claimed a huge amount of territory in the sea and built air bases and naval facilities on many of the islands. However, given the proximity of China to this area, there is little the West can do about it militarily. It can — and should — through diplomacy get China to navigate a different course.

But sending a spanking new aircraft carrier from Britain, regardless of how up-to-date it is, will not get that job done. The only purpose this supposed show of force serves is to satisfy Britain’s apparent need for continuing the “great game” three quarters of a century after the former world power ran out of significant global steam and/or muscle.

Gunboat diplomacy

Reaching back in history even further, historic-minded observers might even be uncomfortably reminded of the era of the West’s gunboat diplomacy.

But none of that fazes Mr. Williamson. He even added that two military bases, one in the Caribbean and the other in Asia, will be built to “strengthen our global presence.”

That’s what defense chiefs, eager to boost their own standing in the political pecking order at home, routinely say. But beyond glib talk of boosting one’s global presence and showing the flag, the key issue is what financial wherewithal a defense minister actually has in the budget.

Evidently aiming to portray himself as particularly muscular, Mr. Williamson then added that his initiative was “to enhance our lethality and increase our mass.” That begs the question: What lethality — and what mass?

First of all, the UK carrier will enter active duty in 2021. Very sportsmanlike, the British are telling the “enemy” their own plans two years in advance. The Chinese must be shaking in their boots and boats.

Hard power?

Mr. Williamson also said that the UK had to be ready to use “hard power” when he announced that the carrier’s first operational mission would take place in the South China Sea.

That statement may have been intended to impress folks in Washington, D.C. with the UK’s resolve. But it’s absolute tosh, as the Americans know full well. Not only is Britain in no position to take on China in that sea, but Britain has serious problems far closer to home – at home in fact, with the unresolved Brexit.

If anything, Mr. Williamson’s announcement only underscores the global sense of complete disillusionment with the sense of national “strategy” that is on display by one of the world’s former top powers.

Even the British government torpedoed the grandiose announcement of its own defense secretary. An official spokesman pointed out that the carrier would visit a number of global locations and that the prime minister, not the defense chief with ambitions to lead the Tory party, would take the final decision over its route.

Time to face reality

If the Queen Elizabeth enters the South China Sea, the Chinese will protest, and demand that Britain stop its provocation. Then the carrier will retreat after a brief stint in the disputed waters. Point made. The carrier returns home, Britain still rules the waves and the spirit of Drake and Nelson lives on.

The Chinese missiles deployed on Fujian province alone can secure the sea for China. The country does not need to deploy its navy to deal with an aircraft carrier.

One also wonders how any of these fanciful designs by the UK defense secretary fit into post-Brexit Britain’s plan to hail a new trade deal with China.

Britain’s armed forces

Britain’s armed forces are at their smallest number since the Napoleonic wars. At about 80,000, they would not even fill Wembley stadium’s 90,000 capacity on cup final day.

As to global threats, it should be self-evident to the British that there is a threat from terrorism – and that enhanced technological and robotic counter-measures are needed to deal with it. Meanwhile, there is no threat from the South China Sea.

There is a clear and present danger, though, of the UK seeking to continue its campaign to make itself the object of global ridicule by seeking to punch above its weight class.

Post-Brexit Britain apparently believes that it can again rule the waves. Or that China is an enemy that needs to be taught a lesson.

The Chinese have had experience aplenty of being taught lessons from the West – and dealt with it accordingly, not least by means of an impressive economic strategy. That is something the UK, with its penchant for short-term thinking and the maximization of private profit, can only dream about.

The lack of an economic strategy on the UK’s part that would be even remotely comparable to the long-term thinking in China — as the world knows, but apparently not the Tories — has proven to be a key driver of the Brexit vote.

At best, and in the most charitable interpretation, all one can say is that the UK moves in circles – and doesn’t even realize that much. That’s tragic for a country that once was among the world’s most strategic-minded nations.

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About Tom Clifford

Tom Clifford is an Irish journalist, currently based in Beijing.

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