The 7th Year of the Arbitral Victory: Defending the West Philippine Sea, the Indo-Pacific, and the Rules-Based Order
UK Promoting Reliable Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific Region
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It is a pleasure to be here today, alongside such distinguished speakers, on the day of the 7th anniversary of the 2016 arbitral award, to discuss the UK’s perspective and role on the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific in general and the South China Sea, in particular.
This is, of course, a very important and timely conference. For us – it comes on the back of the UK-Philippines Joint Defence Committee that was held last week, co-chaired by our MOD and the Philippines’s DND. And just two months before in February, we had our inaugural face-to-face UK/Philippines Maritime Dialogue. Both demonstrate how seriously we are taking our relationship with the Philippines on these matters.
And it comes as the NATO Summit is happening in Vilnius. This historic summit reminds us how much we value our shared security and our allies. It sends a strong signal to all those that are watching that the resolve of those that stand up to blatant violations of international law is stronger than ever. And it is a demonstration that the security of the Indo-Pacific and that of the Euro-Atlantic are increasingly intertwined.
Let’s begin with the basics. The UK is far from the Indo-Pacific, but the Indo-Pacific matters to the UK. It does so for obvious economic and security reasons. For example, at least 1.7 million British Citizens live across the region. And our trade with the Indo-Pacific was nearly £300bn last year, which is nearly 12% of our GDP.
And it’s not just the Indo-Pacific in general terms. What happens in the South China Sea matters to the UK. It does so because:
- Freedom of navigation is essential. Yes it is essential to our security and prosperity. But it is essential as a cornerstone of international maritime law.
- We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the SCS is not a testing ground for reckless behaviour.
- The consequences of escalation and crisis in the South China Sea would have implications for us all – including, but not limited to, major risks to global economic stability.
Earlier this year, we published our Integrated Review Refresh – a comprehensive strategy that reflects on the intensification of competition, the great pace of geopolitical change, and increasingly volatile and contested world. And our place within that.
Our conclusion of the Review is that:
- Those who believe in the principles of openness, good governance, respect for sovereignty and respect for international law must do more to build our resilience and out-cooperate and out-compete those driving instability.
- As such, the UK will take a more active and activist posture on the world stage.
So, our direction is clear, and we will proudly and confidently play our part to support a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Standing up for what we believe in
This begins by standing up for what we believe in. We stand up for international law, the international law-based maritime order, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – something that is frequently reinforced by our Ministers in their public speeches.
The Minister for Indo-Pacific reiterated the UK’s unwavering support for UNCLOS on its 40th anniversary at the South China Sea International conference last year. The UK will continue to demonstrate its support and stand up for the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-aggression. We will continue to oppose any action that raises tensions or the risk of miscalculation. Unashamedly. Where this involves calling out actions that go counter these principles, and that are dangerous, we do so.
Alongside our G7 partners in the Hiroshima Leaders’ Communique, the UK reaffirmed the importance of UNCLOS and reiterated that the 2016 Arbitral Award is a significant milestone, which is legally binding upon the parties to those proceedings and a useful basis for peacefully resolving disputes between the parties.
We stand up for international maritime law in our words, but also in our actions.
The 2021 deployment of the Carrier Strike Group (in which we engaged with over 40 countries), and long-term deployment of two Offshore Patrol Vessels, HMS Spey and HMS Tamar, has not just allowed us to further defence engagement across the region, but enabled us to walk the talk – in particular on freedom of navigation.
Following HMS Queen Elizabeth, our 5th generation aircraft carrier and her strike group’s visits in 2021.
We note that the Philippines has also taken the bold step to stand up with confidence in support of international law in the South China Sea. We applaud this and salute the resolve shown by this administration.
Developing Strong Security Partnerships
Beyond that, we believe that building closer bilateral, mini-lateral and multi-lateral defence and security partnerships with regional partners will be key to support peace and stability throughout the region.
Indeed – alliances and their cohesiveness are key. So that those who threaten, coerce, intimidate or use force feel the unity and the might of those who uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and abstain from said threats, coercion, intimidation, or the use of force.
We are already building these alliances through landmark agreements and partnerships including AUKUS, with the US and Australia, and the Global Combat Air Programme with Japan and Italy. We firmly believe that these not only show our resolve, but also have a stabilising effect in the region. Here in the Philippines, these agreements also show that the Philippines does not stand alone.
These partnerships are important, but not sufficient. We believe in working with partners to strengthen our collective capabilities. Here in the Philippines, we are working alongside partners to build the capability of the Philippines to defend its territory. We are:
*Increasing bilateral defence engagement across the air, land and maritime domains with periodic visits by Royal Navy ships, visits and engagements by Defence leaders and specialist training teams.
*Building military capability through provision of international defence training in the UK, the Philippines and the region, focusing on developing specialist skills and professional military education for future commanders.
*Pursuing joint military exercises and capitalise on opportunities to observe other military exercises in the UK, Philippines and Indo-Pacific.
But it’s not just about hard-edged security and defence.
The UK is also offering its expertise in areas such as Maritime Domain Awareness, Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Fishing and tackling environmental damage to coastal areas through our own world-renowned agencies, such as the Royal Navy’s MDA team and the UK’s Hydrographic Office.
It’s also about the economy, economic resilience and economic security.
Indeed, these are also the modern nomenclature of conflict. And the areas we must invest in to prevent said conflict. Across the world we have seen a disturbing rise in incidents of economic coercion that seek to exploit economic vulnerabilities and dependencies and undermine the foreign and domestic policies and sovereignty of countries around the world. We categorically oppose this behaviour, regardless of which country engages in them. We are committed to ensure that attempts to weaponise economic dependencies by forcing our partners to comply and conform will fail and face consequences.
So as the UK we will boost economic growth and opportunities through high-quality trade agreements and digital partnerships. Alongside our G7 partners, we are taking steps to end strategic dependency – on energy, investment and technology – and provide a credible alternative. We are working to unlock investment and collaborating with innovative private sector partners to develop and grow successful UK and Indo-Pacific partnerships.
At Hiroshima, G7 Leaders launched a new Coordination Platform on Economic Coercion. As part of this, Leaders committed to further promote cooperation with partners beyond the G7, and to coordinate, as appropriate, support to targeted states, economies and entities as a demonstration of solidarity and resolve to uphold the rule of law.
Through continuing to build strong partnerships and collaboration in this way, together we can ensure a more stable, peaceful and prosperous future for all.