The AUKUS security bloc consisting of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States will support the Philippines and neighboring countries by helping deter threats to a rules-based international order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea amid escalating tensions in the contested waters, the British ambassador told GMA News Online in an interview last Monday.
The UK has deployed at least two ships, which have visited the Philippines and will have “a persistent naval presence” in the Indo-Pacific region as a concrete sign of its long-term commitment to regional peace and stability. A UK Carrier Strike Group led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier may also visit the Philippines for the first time when the British warships sail back to Asia in about two years, Ambassador Laure Beaufils said.
The UK has been expanding its international engagements since exiting from the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020. It belongs to the AUKUS, a three-nation security bloc in the Indo-Pacific that was unveiled in September 2021 partly for the US and the UK to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
A British minister for the Indo-Pacific, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, will pay a visit this week to the Philippines. The UK and the Philippines launched their “enhanced partnership” in December 2021 to deepen ties including in the area of maritime cooperation that allows Great Britain to help the Philippines enhance its maritime domain awareness and strengthen capacity to address unregulated and illegal fishing.
Next month, a small contingent of British forces will participate in the annual Balikatan military exercises between the US and the Philippines as observers.
“We stand by the rules-based international system, we stand by UNCLOS in particular. To the Philippines, it is incredibly important,” Beaufils said.
UNCLOS is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty signed by 168 countries including the UK and regarded as the “constitution of the oceans” across the world.
“It will support the Philippines to deter countries that are challenging Filipino sovereignty and it is really about ensuring a secure, resilient and sovereign Indo-Pacific,” she added.
“We will continue to play our part in the Philippines and in the region in terms of demonstrating the importance of freedom of navigation and partaking in exercises with key partners as well as sharing our knowledge and experience,” Beaufils said.
UK and AUKUS engagement in the region is crucial due to rising tensions in the contested region that could trigger accidental confrontations, the British ambassador said.
“The immediate short-term risk is that, I guess, there could be accident,” she said. “We are seeing increased tensions in the South China Sea and that is a concern for all parties involved I’m sure because everyone ultimately wants peace and stability so that is the thing that we must avoid, right?”
The Philippines, which has filed more than 200 diplomatic protests against China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea since last year, welcomed the launching of the AUKUS security alliance as a counterbalance to China in the region.
Malaysia and Indonesia, however, expressed concerns partly because of the security partnership’s efforts to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines that could stoke an arms race in Asia.
China has branded the AUKUS as an idea that emerged from a “typical Cold War mentality which would trigger an arms race, damage the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and threaten regional stability and peace. It has accused such security blocs involving the US of aiming to contain China.
Beaufils countered that the AUKUS is “certainly not targeted against a particular country, rather, it is a demonstration also that partnerships are important and working with partners that share the same values, the same fundamental commitment to the rules-based international system, to international law and international law of the sea.”
On concerns over Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, which will utilize British technology, Beaufils said the UK, US and Australia have come together “to increase capability in particular of Australia to play its part in the peace and stability in the region.”
The trilateral security partnership will never aim to dominate the region but actually aims to complement and strengthen “the existing security architecture in the region,” she said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations formalized ties with the UK as a dialogue partner in August 2021, which the UK says is the first such partnership ASEAN has included in 25 years. Beaufils said the ASEAN can expect the AUKUS as “a steadfast partner” on security-related issues particularly in making sure that regional “tensions do not escalate and, we avoid conflict.”
“ASEAN centrality is so important, something that we absolutely celebrate and support,” Beaufils said.
Asked if a regional code of conduct the ASEAN is negotiating with China to avoid escalation of conflicts in the South China Sea should be fast-tracked and concluded as a legally binding pact, she said the content of the proposed agreement was more crucial.
“I would say rather than accelerating things, focusing on the content and ensuring that content is compliant and in line with international law seems to me, to be some, a key consideration,” she said.
The negotiations for the code of conduct have been delayed for years, including at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Indonesia, which currently leads the ASEAN as chair country, has expressed hopes that it could expedite the talks. Indonesian Ambassador Agus Widjojo said in a separate interview with GMA News Online, earlier this month that the negotiations for the code “is the most important” undertaking by China and ASEAN to prevent and manage conflicts in the disputed waters.
The British ambassador said deepening and expanding engagement with the Philippines and neighboring countries in reinforcing the rule of law in the region is crucial and strategic in preventing future crises.
“Once you stop respecting international law, there are no rules to guide how we engage amongst each other as sovereign member states of the UN. So, our position is very clear,” she said.
As coastal states, the Philippines and the UK share similar concerns and aspiration for strong adherence to international law , she said.
“The UK is also a maritime power, right? So, if you look at our geography, we’re surrounded by water as well. So, we share a lot of the concerns that the Philippines has had in terms of the importance of the international law of the sea and UNCLOS, in particular, to maintain sovereignty,” she said.
“Our position is very, very clear that international law must be respected,” Beaufils stressed. —KG, GMA Integrated News