Upholding the right of innocent passage

The Royal Navy’s role

Rear Admiral Andrew Burns OBE, outlines how cooperation between navies can help maintain prosperity for trading nations

One of the many challenges we are witnessing to the ‘rules-based international system’, exemplified by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is how to manage the High Seas responsibly for the mutual benefit of all those who rely on freedom of navigation for their prosperity and security. Nations with capable navies, including the UK, are recognising the increasing importance of the maritime domain and global maritime trade; over 90 per cent of world trade is carried by sea, with a value of $4 trillion.

The high seas facilitate this trade and are critical to the effective functioning of the global economy. Disruption to the maritime freight network would have rapid and wide-ranging consequences on the UK economy and economies across the world. The Royal Navy will continue to play a leading role in safeguarding the right of innocent passage and supporting the management of the high seas for a global Britain intent on expanding its economic prosperity and influence.

The Rules-Based International System

The seas upon which we rely are becoming more congested, cluttered and contested. These factors are part of a deteriorating security climate, exacerbated by an erosion of the rules that have historically governed the global commons. Adherence to international law and conventional norms that support their management relies upon common consent, making them vulnerable to exploitation and competition. Such exploitation demands a response, which is why the UK will maintain a highly credible fleet to defend our vital national interests wherever threats to such interests manifest themselves.

As a result, the Royal Navy will operate in a way that provides a more enduring presence overseas and facilitates engagement with international partners. If we in the UK wish to maintain our trading status as a nation then we will need to contribute to the security of both those with whom we wish to trade and the routes upon which such trade depends. In so doing, our contribution to collective prosperity and our willingness to uphold the laws and norms that govern the sea become mutually supportive.

Responsible management of the High Seas will, therefore, rely on partnerships. Navies are ideally placed to facilitate cooperation between nations that have similar security concerns.

Along with a shared willingness to uphold the rules-based international order, integration of maritime forces between partner navies through regular exercises develops credibility, and it signals their commitment to upholding international laws such as those codified in UNCLOS. In this respect, there are three regions of particular focus for the Royal Navy: the Arctic, the Middle East and the South China Sea.

The Arctic

HMS Trenchant
HMS Trenchant after breaking through ice at the North Pole during exercises with two US submarines in 2018. Photo: Crown Copyright.

Until recently the Arctic has been treated in geopolitical isolation, but the opening up of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) has changed the dynamics between Russia and other  Arctic nations, with Russia attempting to exert influence through military means. Russian

Northern Fleet activity in the North Atlantic and beyond requires passage through the Barents Sea and the Greenland–Iceland–UK gap. For NATO the adjacent sea lines of communication would be vital for reinforcement and resupply to Europe during transition to war and any subsequent conflict; hence the need to maintain freedom of navigation from the North Atlantic to the Arctic. The greater access to the Arctic Ocean and the concomitant increase in merchant traffic will require cooperation between Arctic powers to maintain freedom of navigation; the existing Incidents at Sea Agreement would provide a starting point, but should be developed further to establish an understanding between Russia, NATO and non-aligned Arctic nations.

This would then provide NATO, and its Nordic partners, Sweden and Finland, with a framework within which legitimate patrolling and exercise activity could take place. It would become increasingly important as merchant traffic through the NSR increased; navies could act as a convening authority for such cooperation. The UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime) is a good example; this provides an organisation for training and exercises, and when it is deployed it enhances deterrence. It can also be combined with NATO maritime forces, as was the case for the BALTOPS 19 exercise, led by the US 2nd Fleet, when 18 nations (16 NATO plus Sweden and Finland) cooperated, demonstrating cohesive partnership and presence.

Any conflict in the Arctic would probably have a significant effect on sea lines of communication between the North Atlantic and the Baltic.

Although this would be in no one’s interest, any increasing tension would increase the risk of miscalculation and escalation. If this is to be avoided, the Arctic is an area where cooperation based on international norms is essential.

The Middle East

The Royal Navy has consistently invested significant resources – ships, staff, and command and control capability – in the Combined Maritime Forces Coalition based in Bahrain. This has brought together 33 nations to combat illicit activity in the region, including serious organised crime and terrorism. It is continuous engagement with other navies that creates mutual understanding and trust, and the interoperability necessary to respond to crisis. Hence the recent UK–US joint naval mission to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz; Royal Navy warships have been employed in ensuring safe passage through it for British-flagged vessels.

The basing of HMS Montrose in Bahrain is also symbolic of the Royal Navy’s commitment, but it is the enduring nature of our cooperation with the US 5th Fleet in that region that enables an agile and coordinated response capability.

Similarly, the rotational leadership of the coalition task forces engages partner nations more deeply, increases interoperability and enhances effectiveness. This has been an efficient and effective way to deter threats to freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce as well as establishing a baseline of combined readiness to meet whatever challenges we might need to tackle together in the future.

The South China Sea

Russian and Chinese military officials
A meeting in September 2019, between senior Russian and Chinese military officials, to develop a military cooperation plan for 2020–21. Photo: mil.ru

China’s pressure on coastal states in the South China Sea also poses a threat to freedom of navigation and regional stability. In so doing it is asserting exceptionalism from the rules-based international order and its own interpretation of international law; this has been characterised by the Nine-dash Line and the activity around disputed areas such as the Spratly Islands.

China’s coastguard is more actively policing claims, and it is placing offshore energy installations in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. In addition, China has undertaken extensive reclamation and construction work on numerous islands. Consequently, UNCLOS is being undermined, and there are long-term implications for UK maritime and trade interests, particularly given the potential for offshore resource development. Nevertheless, China continues to harass exploration vessels in the Malaysian EEZ, and grey-zone tactics continue to be employed around disputed islands in the Philippine Sea.

There is a clear requirement here for increased cooperation between regional navies to deter such activity and maintain freedom of navigation. That is why the Royal Navy deployed a near-continuous presence in South East Asia during 2018 and into this year. There is a desire for more interaction with partner navies, and the Royal Navy will not only continue to conduct Freedom of Navigation patrols through disputed areas that UNCLOS would designate High Seas, but will also maintain a presence in the region. A change to the deployment operating paradigm will allow a more persistent presence through forward basing.

Respect for UNCLOS in an area of such crucial trade flows is vital if UK interests in the region are to be protected. The Royal Navy has the means to demonstrate that there is no alternative to UNCLOS and to working with ASEAN partner navies to prevent China controlling the free flow of commerce through the High Seas of the region. Existing alliances such as the Five Powers Defence Agreement will become increasingly important – but other, ad hoc, coalitions (bilateral or multi-lateral) will become just as relevant.


States such as China, Russia and Iran are increasingly seeking ways to circumvent the rules-based international system upon which British interests depend. But as the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers become operational the RN’s reputation as a credible military partner will be strengthened.

The deployment of a UK carrier strike group will be a powerful demonstration of not only the UK’s global reach, but also the UK’s willingness and determination to uphold the Law of the Sea and underpin the rules-based system.

Aligned with a Global Britain foreign policy agenda, the Royal Navy is ready to respond to those who threaten the rules-based system, and to deter threats to British interests on the high seas. The Royal Navy is well placed to participate in and coordinate the efforts of the coalitions of like-minded navies; multilateralism will be essential to maintain the international mechanisms governing the global commons, including UNCLOS. With the UK government’s ambition to enhance our global trading network following a departure from the European Union, our dependence on access to and freedom of navigation on the high seas is set to increase; the Royal Navy will play a leading role in providing the necessary security. n

Rear Admiral Andrew Burns OBE, Commander UK Maritime Strike Force and Rear Admiral Surface Fleet, was appointed to his present position in February 2019. He had previously commanded the Amphibious Task Group, with a period in command of the US 5th Fleet Combined Task Force 50.