The South China Sea is a Pandora’s box of potentially lethal conflagrations that the US and Britain could conceivably unleash. JENNY CLEGG looks at the conflicting political interests of the region
Recently Britain sent four Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Japan for its first ever joint military drill with the Japanese Air self-defence force — the first time Japanese pilots have flown alongside pilots from another country apart from the US.
Any day now these same British planes will head to the Korean Peninsula to join, again for the first time, the large scale US-South Korea Invincible Shield exercises.
The participation is not militarily insignificant. Why on Earth is Britain returning so far to the “East of Suez” after nearly 50 years?
The drills come amid heightened tensions on the peninsula following the announcement in July on the US-South Korean deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) — an anti-ballistic missile defence system — and North Korea’s subsequent nuclear test in September.
Russia and China have also reacted angrily to Thaad and all three powers — Russia, China and the US — have been flying nuclear capable bombers around the region. The British military is entering a dangerous situation.
East Asia is now reaching a moment of profound change following the decision of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea tribunal denying the legality of China’s South China Sea claims.
The ruling was made regardless of the fact that the Chinese have been sailing the sea since the days of the Roman empire and the fact that the tribunal has no jurisdiction anyway over matters of sovereignty.
China’s point-blank refusal to accept it has been a wake-up call for the US foreign policy Establishment, which for the last 20 years has held the view that commercial engagement would lead to China’s eventual integration under US liberal hegemony.
Now the prospect of war with China is being openly debated. The global policy think tank Rand Corporation has even suggested that if war cannot be avoided, then the US would be best advised to strike first before China gets any stronger.
The reappearance of British war planes in the region has not come entirely out of the blue. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) made commitments to considerably strengthen defence co-operation with Japan, South Korea and the Five Power Defence Arrangement — a military alliance with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore of which Britain is a key member.
Japan is seen as “our closest partner in Asia.” Now this is the Japan that fails to fully face up to its history, not just its WWII atrocities — such as the Nanjing massacre — but also its strategic co-ordination with Adolf Hitler to achieve a worldwide victory for fascism.
And it is the Japan that has just appointed a hard-line nationalist as defence minister — someone known to have criticised the conviction of Japan’s war criminals and to favour Japan’s nuclear armament.
Of course, British policies of appeasing Japan’s militarism have their own historical roots, not least in the decision to close the Burma Road in 1940, giving Japan respite to advance into Indochina and the South China Sea.
Britain has backed right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to “reinterpret” Japan’s pacifist constitution and is now becoming heavily involved in its remilitarisation through defence industry collaboration. Japan has upped its defence budget to a record £50 billion for 2017 to develop new tactical ballistic missiles aimed at increasing military reach over the East China Sea. Britain has agreed to help with this and is in effect abetting Japan in its dispute with China over islands at the far edge of the sea.
Britain has also voiced support for Japan to take a more “proactive role” in security affairs beyond its borders as it seeks to boost its military ties with countries in south-east Asia in contest with China over island claims.
Joining Japan in warning China not to restrict air and sea travel across the South China Sea, despite China’s assurances that it will not impede commercial shipping, Britain has effectively endorsed Japan’s involvement in the “management” of the South China Sea disputes. Both countries have indicated a willingness to join the legally dubious US “freedom of navigation” operations around these waters.
In fact, Britain could play a significant role in any military conflict in the area — given a permanent military presence at its base in Brunei along with a large fuel depot and berthing wharves in Singapore useful for British and allied warships.
The 2015 review has committed to joint exercises with the Five Powers involving British aircraft carriers which — under “interoperability” — could be used by the US to fly F35 Lightning fighter jets.
The South China Sea dispute is on hold for now, given Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s about-turn from the US towards China.
Meanwhile the Korean peninsula is on the brink with the UN security council (UNSC) deadlocked over how to respond to North Korea’s latest test. The US, Britain and France want even harsher sanctions, looking to China to cut off oil supplies but this is highly doubtful.
Russia and China both draw the line at sanctions which have harmful effects on the civilian population, not least for fear of a humanitarian crisis sending refugees flooding across their borders.
At Russia’s and China’s insistence, the United Nations security council resolution on North Korea’s January test called for states to “refrain from any actions that might aggravate tensions” and for the resumption of the Six Party talks. The Invincible Shield exercises violate the resolution.
With the UNSC locked in a trial of strength the US has used North Korea’s escalations to cement the Thaad agreement and put additional pressure on China.
Meanwhile the South Korean peace movement is mobilising mass protests.
The US policy of tough actions has only produced even tougher responses from North Korea and while sanctions — already imposed on almost everything possible — are at their limits, the highly provocative military exercises are likely to make North Korea even more aggressive.
There needs to be a fundamental rethink. Instead of helping the US find a way out of the impasse by ceasing the exercises, Britain has chosen this moment to bolster US brinkmanship.
Stoking up tensions in the Asia Pacific region — where states have money to spend on arms — may well be good for the British defence industry, but provocations tend to have repercussions.
Acting with Japan on issues in the East and South China Sea, Britain lends moral and political legitimacy to its re-emergence as an influential military power in the region. But any deployment by Japan’s military in the region and any linking of Japan’s missile defence to Thaad would likely see China harden its military stance.
Further beneath the surface, there is a certain reciprocity between Britain’s power projection in the region and Japan’s developing links with Nato.
As the only European power so far involved in Asia-Pacific security, Britain may play a crucial role in globalising Nato.
Would this not take the cork out of the bottle containing Abe’s nationalist dream to restore Japan to its prewar status as one of the five great world military powers?