The UK foreign secretary notes that extra-regional powers are paying attention to potential security risks, but that any issues should be resolved through dialogue and in accordance with international law.
The United Kingdom would be prepared to deploy military forces to the Asia-Pacific region should political and military tensions in the region cause a deterioration in the security situation, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in Singapore on 30 January.
Hammond made the comments during a lecture on the UK's involvement in the region organised by the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). The former defence secretary noted the "plethora of territorial claims which still plague the region" and stated that he is dismayed with the slow pace of historic reconciliation despite its increased economic interconnectedness.
Yet the foreign secretary cautioned that economical connectedness is no guarantee that the region cannot be torn apart by strategic rivalry, citing the First World War in Europe as an example. "Many inside and outside Asia are watching nervously as political tensions and nationalism heighten in East Asia," he added.
Hammond said that while the United Kingdom does not take a position on the underlying sovereignty disputes in the South and East China seas, it rejects a power-based order in Asia and that territorial disputes in the region should be resolved according to international rules. "It is critically important for regional stability, and for the integrity of the rules-based international system, that disputes in the region are resolved not through force or coercion, but through dialogue and in accordance with international law," he said.
The United Kingdom, he noted, has an important stake in Asian security given that GBP3 trillion (USD4.52 trillion) worth of trade passes through the South China Sea annually. As such, the UK remains committed to the regional multilateral security pacts known as the Five Powers Defence Arrangements (FPDA) alongside Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore. The FPDA, established in 1971, is still the only formal multilateral defence arrangement in South East Asia.
"That [commitment] means we are ready and able to mobilise in support of Asia-Pacific allies, friends, and partners," said Hammond. The secretary pointed to the Royal Navy's (RN's) involvement in the Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts and the international search for missing Malaysian airliner MH370 as examples of the UK's responsiveness in mobilising military assets to deploy to the region.
The RN deployed its Type 45 destroyer HMS Daring and the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to support the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) effort that followed Typhoon Haiyan's devastation of the Philippines in November 2013. The service then dispatched the survey ship HMS Echo and the Trafalgar-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) HMS Tireless during the search for missing Malaysian airliner MH370 in March 2014.
The FPDA was conceived with the intention of sending a firm message that any attack on Malaysia and Singapore would precipitate the involvement of Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom in response. This commitment was borne out of a period of low-level military confrontation between Singapore and Indonesia in the 1960s, with Indonesia's president Sukarno perceiving the formation of Malaysia and Singapore as threats to his vision of an Indonesia that dominated the region.
While the risk of military hostility between Southeast Asian nations has largely dissipated, the FPDA has endured as a security construct and has evolved to take on broader roles such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and counter-piracy operations.
Secretary Hammond's speech in Singapore perhaps represents the first time that the FPDA has been mentioned in the same breath as South China Sea disputes. His remarks that the United Kingdom stands ready to deploy military assets under the auspices of the FPDA, should its interests in the region be threatened, reflects statements in the UK's National Strategy for Maritime Security, published in May 2014, which highlights among other issues the UK's "significant political and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region" and its particular concerns over security matters in the South China Sea.
The UK's position also suggests that the FPDA could see yet another evolution in its purpose as signatories invoke commitment to it in the context of new security risks.
Malaysia, an FPDA signatory state, is a claimant party in South China Sea disputes.
The Trafalgar-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) HMS Tireless (S-88) of the Royal Navy.