Bill Hayton discusses economic impact of South China Sea tensions
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Last month HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s largest ship sailed through the disputed waters, which China claims it has total sovereignty over. The aircraft carrier led a strike group of British naval vessels through the area after conducting exercises with the Singaporean navy. The flotilla headed on to the Philippine Sea to carry out further drills with the US, Australia, France and Japan.
The show of Britain’s naval strength sparked fury in Beijing, which warned London not to engage in any “improper acts”.
China specialist and political scientist, Dr Jonathan Sullivan from the University of Nottingham has suggested that by provoking Beijing, Britain risks jeopardising its economic objectives.
He told Express.co.uk Britain’s naval activities with its allies in the region could complicate efforts to secure post-Brexit trade with China.
Dr Sullivan said: “We don’t currently have an explicit China policy, but instead we have this equivocal, ‘two faced’ – not necessarily a pejorative – approach to China that is extremely difficult to pull off.
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“The financial stresses of Brexit and COVID will take years to fully reveal themselves.
“But it is difficult to see how cutting ourselves off from economic cooperation with the world’s second-biggest economy and underwriting expensive military operations in Asia is compatible with a pretty serious financial hole.
“If the UK Government is serious about pursuing a values-based foreign policy then that is one thing.
“If they decide to pragmatically pursue deals with a huge economy that’s another.
“But the ‘have cake and eat it’ ambition of ‘values-based pragmatism’ that is the official line is likely to be unsustainable when it comes to dealing with China.”
Boris Johnson laid out his vision for dealing with China in the Government’s Integrated Review earlier this year.
In the document, the Prime Minister says Britain recognises the “importance” of regional players, such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Along with Brunei and Taiwan, the nations all have counterclaims against Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea.
The review also says that China’s military modernisation and assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond “will pose an increasing risk to UK interests”.
It adds: “Open, trading economies like the UK will need to engage with China and remain open to Chinese trade and investment.
“But they must also protect themselves against practices that have an adverse effect on prosperity and security.”
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Dr Sullivan stressed that Britain is unlikely to be able to confront Beijing over the South China Sea while maintaining access to the Chinese market.
He added: “The Integrated Review from March made clear that the UK is seeking a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific, and the recent Navy deployment is an embodiment of that.
“The UK is positioning itself with the US and other democracies to balance China’s growing assertiveness in Asia – China’s backyard – through the Quad, Five Eyes and other co-operations with the US, Australia and India.
“At the same time, it is also not done trying to secure trade deals and investment with China.
“Those two strands of ‘Global Britain’ are incompatible, as China reminds us on a daily basis.”
This week the US warned China over its activities in the region and said that it would make its voice heard on key issues.
Vice President Kamala Harris made the comments in Vietnam as she finished her tour of Southeast Asia.
She told a press conference: “We welcome stiff competition, we do not seek conflict but on issues such as the South China Sea, we are going to speak up.
“We are going to speak up when there are actions that Beijing takes that threaten the rules-based international order.”
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