South China Sea conference 2023: speech by the UK Minister for the Indo-Pacific
Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan gave a keynote speech to South China Sea conference in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, friends. It’s good to be here with you in person this morning to show my support for an area of geopolitical importance.
I am especially glad to be here this year during the 50th anniversary year of diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and Vietnam. We are a close partner with Vietnam on maritime security and remain committed to strengthening our collaboration.
I’m here because what happens in the South China Sea matters globally. As you’re aware, almost 60% of global maritime trade passes through the South China Sea. This makes it vital that all parties enjoy the same freedoms to navigate and exercise in the South China Sea.
Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine offers an alarming example of the pain inflicted when supply chains are disrupted by conflict. Rising energy and food prices are harming the world’s most vulnerable people.
Like you, the UK is committed to avoiding any such outcome in this region. We seek to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific. We want to deepen relationships with our partners, support sustainable development and tackle the shared challenges we all face.
What does this mean for the South China Sea? It means supporting stability and working together on climate change.
It also means establishing and maintaining open lines of communication. That is the most effective way of managing tensions. Failing to do so risks escalation. You in this region know, more than anyone, the potentially catastrophic consequences that this could have. As the UK deepens its long-term partnership with ASEAN and others in the Indo-Pacific, we are committed to helping you to de-escalate tensions and maintain stability.
That is why our commitment to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is unwavering. Last year, on its 40th anniversary, I reiterated the important role UNCLOS plays in setting the legal framework for activities in our seas and oceans.
The UK takes no sides in the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, but we oppose any activity that undermines or threatens UNCLOS’ authority – including attempts to legitimise incompatible maritime claims.
The recent instances of unsafe conduct against Vietnamese and Filipino vessels has demonstrated the serious risks posed to regional peace and stability. When we see actions that violate UNCLOS we will call them out – as we did following events around the Second Thomas Shoal this week. And we will support our partners to shine a light on this so-called ‘grey zone’ activity that creates tensions and risks escalation.
Our ambassador in Manila joined partners this July in reiterating that the 2016 Arbitral Award is a significant milestone in resolving disputes peacefully and is legally binding on China and the Philippines. We call on both parties to abide by the findings of those proceedings.
Our partnership with ASEAN supports our shared commitment for a free and open Indo-Pacific. We respect and admire the central role ASEAN has played in maintaining regional stability and prosperity.
We look forward to working with you on advancing the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, with maritime cooperation being a key pillar. We also congratulate ASEAN on issuing its first Maritime Outlook and holding its first maritime Solidarity Exercise.
I am also grateful to my Indonesian counterparts for their work as ASEAN chair this year in progressing negotiations for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
The UK strongly believes in the need for an agreement that is consistent with UNCLOS and reflects the interests and guarantees the rights and freedoms of all parties – including third countries. The UK’s Carrier Strike Group will soon return to the region to demonstrate these rights and freedoms in practice.
Let me turn now to what the UK can offer.
Like ASEAN, we hope that a sea of conflict can become a sea of cooperation. There is no more urgent need for cooperation than on environmental degradation. Pressures on fisheries, the destruction of the marine environment and rising sea levels pose an existential threat to the millions of people who rely on the South China Sea for their livelihoods.
This is why we have launched new projects – including through our ASEAN dialogue partnership – to conserve the sea for our future generations.
Our Just Energy Transition Partnerships, signed with Vietnam and Indonesia, encourage the early retirement of high-emitting coal fired power plants, investment in renewable energy and overcome barriers to support an inclusive and just transition.
Our Blue Planet Fund, worth half a billion pounds, includes over £150 million for the COAST programme. This is designed to help vulnerable coastal communities across the region improve their climate resilience and become more sustainable.
Other Blue Planet Fund programmes focus on tackling plastic pollution – a key ASEAN objective; testing innovative mechanisms to mobilise blue finance; protecting coral reefs; and commissioning studies into the impact of climate security risks.
Furthermore, to sustain the South China Sea’s vital role as a provider for fish and livelihoods, this year the UK announced funding of £2.5 million on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing – another key priority of the ASEAN Maritime Outlook. This support will help the coastal communities, fragile ocean ecosystems, and global food supply chains that face devastation. We have already started work with partners in the Philippines and we want to expand the scope of similar practical projects with countries in this region, including here in Vietnam.
The UK also continues to support our regional partners’ resilience and security through our ASEAN-UK Maritime Cooperation Programme. We are helping to build capacity on maritime law and providing training and sharing expertise in Exclusive Economic Zone management, maritime domain awareness, and hydrographic research.
Through our bids to join the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus, we propose to make even stronger commitments to regional security and stability.
In conclusion, the UK’s commitment in this region is steadfast. The peace and prosperity of the South China Sea must remain a priority for all. I wish you all a productive and successful conference and look forward to the rest of my time here in Vietnam to learn even more personally.