One of the key motivations for Beijing in its audacious water claims is the lucrative shipping lanes and trading ports that make up the South China Sea, provoking President Xi Jinping to enforce a controversial Nine-Dash Line demarcation of what China deems to be its territory. This has sparked fury not just from Asian neighbours, but also other economies around the world as the South China Sea has emerged as a hugely important trading area where activities affect trade all over the world. And the UK is one of those countries. A notable 12 percent of British trade passes through the South China Sea each year.
Maritime shipping is 9 percent of global trade according to the same figures and given the region’s growing importance an increase is likely.
This could present a big opportunity for the UK to get ahead of its European rivals should departure from the EU be completed, but with opportunity also comes risk in the form of a diplomatically aggressive China.
The UK, alongside the US, is one of the few Western nations to mount any sort of military challenge to China in the region.
In September 2018, a Chinese state-run newspaper accused Britain of “provocation” after it sent a warship through hotly contested archipelagos in the South China Sea.
The editorial also threatened that the move could hinder the UK’s hopes of a trade deal with China post-Brexit.
The newspaper article said: “China and the UK had agreed to actively explore the possibility of discussing a free-trade agreement after Brexit. Any act that harms China’s core interests will only put a spanner in the works,”
Should the UK reap less reward from Europe post-Brexit, how the government balances relations with China could be crucial to how successful Britain’s decision to leave ends up being.
“If we want American support in Europe, we need to assist the US in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in challenging China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea.
“We should not conduct our foreign policy based on what China wants. As we are one of the world’s largest markets and importers, China is in part dependent on us for selling its goods.
“The relationship is not asymmetric: China needs British know-how and investment to develop. We must never lose sight of that fact, or allow Beijing to shape discourse to encourage us into thinking it.”
The South China Sea may feel like a distant issue, but it could be one of Britain’s biggest economic opportunities post-Brexit.