Britain will assert its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea despite recent Chinese claims of provocation, the head of the Royal Navy has vowed.
Admiral Sir Philip Jones said Britain had an obligation to “showcase” physical support for its allies in the Asia Pacific region and to resist what he sees as China’s flouting of international conventions on the laws of the sea.
“If you are going to have a different interpretation of that [convention] to the majority of nations then that has to be resisted,” said Sir Philip in an interview with the Financial Times. “Otherwise you could see right around the world nations who will start to make their own interpretations.”
Beijing last month accused Britain of infringing Chinese sovereignty when one of the navy’s amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion, sailed close to the disputed Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Asked whether he would continue to send British warships through the disputed territorial waters, Sir Philip added: “I expect we will do more of that as we transit through with the ships we have there.”
UK’s most expensive warship arrives in US
The First Sea Lord spoke as the Royal Navy was preparing to sail its biggest and most expensive warship — the £3.1bn aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth — into less contentious waters.
Since the start of October the ship has been conducting landing trials and tests with two F-35B fighter jets off the eastern coast of the US as it continues its preparations for operational duty in 2021.
On Friday, the 65,000 tonne ship entered New York harbour, squeezing under the bay’s Verrazzano Bridge with just 14 feet to spare, and dropping anchor close to the Statue of Liberty in a move designed to signal Britain’s renewal as a maritime power but also to send a message that the UK is open for business after Brexit.
But Britain’s shrinking navy is under intense pressure, facing a growing commitment in the Far East — defence secretary Gavin Williamson has ordered three ships to sail to the Asia Pacific region this year — and resurgent Russian naval activity near UK waters.
Last year the Royal Navy escorted ships from the Russian fleet close to UK waters on 33 separate occasions. Sir Philip said Russian activity was still on the rise with the numbers likely to be the same “if not higher” in 2018.
“They [Russia] are flexing their muscles on a global stage,” said Sir Philip. “We have to work very hard to understand their intent and to be able to track and cope with what they do. it’s a very significant development in British defence.”
Number of frigates and destroyers dwindles
The problem for the Royal Navy is that with a dwindling number of frigates and destroyers — the number has fallen from 28 in 2005 to 19 this year — the need to urgently respond to Russian activity can leave the rest of the fleet stretched when it is facing so many tasks in other parts of the world.
According to statistics released this month by the defence minister Stuart Andrew, four of the UK’s 13 Type 23 frigates spent the whole of 2018 in port. The Type 45 destroyer was beset by engine problems in 2017 and there are concerns over a shortage of attack submarines.
Naval chiefs insist the force is going through a transition period and that the arrival of seven new Astute class attack submarines, eight new Type 26 frigates and the general purpose Type 31E frigates will take the Royal Navy to levels of potency not seen since the Falklands War in 1982.
But defence analysts argue the decision to build HMS Queen Elizabeth and a second £3.1bn aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, has not only sucked money out of other areas of UK defence but also added to a shortage of manpower in the navy.
A National Audit Office report in April revealed the navy had missed its recruitment targets by 16 per cent in 2016/17. The requirement to provide escort ships and submarines to protect the carriers on deployment will only add to the pressures on crewing.
“It’s a constant battle,” said Captain Jerry Kyd, commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth. “It would be lovely to have another 10,000 people but we have to be realistic.”
Future of the navy rests on defence review
Much will hinge on the outcome of the government’s defence review, which is unlikely to be published until long after next week’s Budget.
Sir Philip said he could not “speculate on whether we get the money or not” following the conclusion of the review but said Mr Williamson’s recent pledge to safeguard the UK’s two amphibious landing ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, was an “enormously positive step”.
He added there would be no “concomitant knock on effect” to other parts of the fleet, rebutting speculation that two Type 23 frigates would have to be taken out of service early to pay for the commitment.
And yet some defence experts remain unconvinced at the direction in which the navy is heading.
“Where is the navy conceptually, what are they thinking about?” said Peter Roberts, director of military sciences for the think-tank the Royal United Services Institute and a former naval officer. “They seem to be obsessed over the last five years with the carriers to the detachment of everything else.”
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