Is Boris Johnson Steaming to the South China Sea? If So, Only Slowly

August 4, 2017

Editor’s Note: This was originally published by The Interpreter, the online magazine of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.


Boris Johnson’s ebullient pronouncements last week on a future Royal Navy freedom of navigation ‘operation’ in the Indo-Pacific region have attracted attention, but also criticism.

At the press conference following the “2+2” meeting of Australian and U.K. defense and foreign ministers, Johnson initially said, “One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area.”

That evening, the British Foreign Secretary made a slightly less bombastic pledge in his 2017 Lowy Lecture, that “one of the first missions of our two vast new aircraft carriers will be to sail through the Straits of Malacca.”

Although the first of the 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class carriers is now undergoing sea trials, it will not be commissioned in service until 2020 and the second will follow three years later. But this is 2017. Three years is a long time to wait, even for patient observers. By 2020 it will have beene a full decade since the United Kingdom has independently operated fixed-wing aircraft from carriers. The Fleet Air Arm’s Harrier fleet was retired in 2010 and the last of Britain’s “ski-jump” carriers was decommissioned in 2014.

A decade is a long time in geopolitics for a “capability holiday,” especially in Asia. When Britain’s new aircraft carriers arrive back in Asian waters they will find them more crowded. In 2010, China had no aircraft carriers. By the mid-2020s it could have two or three in service and more in the pipeline.

In Johnson’s defense, he is not the first senior U.K. official to tout a revived British naval presence in Asia. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said at the 2016 Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore: “Those carriers will be ready in the 2020s to sail these seas to contribute to regional security here and to be ready to help in humanitarian and disaster relief.”

Perhaps conscious of the temporal credibility gap in Johnson’s announcement, Fallon (also in Australia for the meeting) subsequently offered a more nuanced statement:

We hope to send a warship to the region next year. We have not finalized exactly where that deployment will take place but we won’t be constrained by China from sailing through the South China Sea.

Sailing through, to be clear, is different to undertaking a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP). The latter implies a specific activity to challenge excessive maritime claims, as the U.S. Navy does through its dedicated program.

If the United Kingdom did intend to perform a FONOP within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, an aircraft carrier would be an unwieldy and unlikely choice for the mission. The U.S. Navy has exclusively used its Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyers to conduct all six FONOPs in the South China Sea since October 2015. The United States has presumably settled on destroyers for its South China Sea FONOPs because they combine speed, maneuverability, and self-defense capability, without appearing overly provocative to China.

Yet as the evening of the Lowy Lecture wore on, it was all too clear that Johnson knew he’d floated into uncharted waters on the FONOPs point. As Peter Harcher has noted, in the question and answer segment following the lecture, the Foreign Secretary went “wobbly,” confiding that “we haven’t yet quite decided to do that,” while noting a preference for the more “easy-going” Australia modus operandi on freedom of navigation. Oh dear.

Johnson’s wider comments on the South China Sea were otherwise robust and sensible, affirming Britain’s abiding interests in upholding the rule of law. He pointedly referenced The Hague Arbitral Award as a binding ruling to be “obeyed,” and voiced disagreement with Beijing’s approach in the South China Sea.

That was enough to incur China’s official ire. But Beijing is unlikely to be overly concerned at the prospect of as-yet uncommissioned British aircraft carriers maneuvering off the Spratly Islands.

When the Royal Navy returns to the region, it is likely to engage in presence patrols in the South China Sea, along similar lines to the navies of France, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada in recent times. Whether sailing solo, or in partnership with other navies, a British presence will help to advertise the importance of the South China Sea as an international waterway, open to all.

The more fundamental obstacle in the way of a revived Royal Navy role in Asia is simply that it is no longer resourced to maintain a global presence. The Royal Navy now has just 19 surface combatants (destroyers and frigates). Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow James Goldrick recently highlighted acute manpower problems, such that the Royal Navy now struggles to fully man and operate the warships in the current inventory, let alone two new behemoth carriers. The Type-45 destroyers, one of which was the last British surface combatant to visit Australia for the RAN’s 100th anniversary fleet review in 2013, have been dogged by propulsion problems. This April, a Royal Marines helicopter detachment sailed through the region including a call into Darwin. However, they had to hitch a ride on a French ship to get there.

If London does send out one its new carriers to Asian waters, it will also tie up much of the peacetime deployable Navy to accompany her. Who is to say that a future Labour government would feel as inclined to follow through on such promises? With little available in reserve, such a decision would have to be made with an eye to strategic circumstances in Europe and the Middle East.

Without sounding too cynical, the United Kingdom has another pragmatic reason to promote a Royal Navy presence in the region: defense sales. Spanish and Italian firms are in active contention with Britain in Australia’s lucrative $30 billion SEA 5000 future frigate Competitive Evaluation Process, which is scheduled for down-select next year. Spain and Italy have both had frigates moored at Sydney’s Fleet Base East this year. Britain has just started construction of the first Type-26 Global Combat Ship, HMS Glasgow.

While there is no prospect of the Type-26 being able to flex its capabilities in time for Canberra’s decision, a British warship present in Asian waters next year would help to demonstrate Britain’s permanent U.N. Security Council seat remains valid in a post-Brexit world. Matching capabilities to intentions is ultimately necessary to maintain credibility. If aircraft carriers still represent the “big stick” in international relations, something less colossal would do just fine in the meantime.


Dr. Euan Graham is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute.

Image: Ministry of Defence