South China Sea crisis: How Boris Johnson’s row with Donald Trump could hand China control

The South China Sea has been the setting of intense political battles between the US and China, with President Trump forced to up Washington’s military presence in the area. This is because Beijing’s forces have militarised the Spratly Island chain, surrounded by natural resources and claimed by other Asian nations. Described by many as “island fortresses”, China has engulfed the Spratly chain with man-made island bases.

The moving of its aircraft carriers, airstrips and weapons into the region has earned the cluster of bases the nickname: “The Great Wall of Sand.”

Other bases boast runways, hangars, control towers and helipads as well as a series of multistorey buildings.

But the US has mounted military challenges as Washington bids to undermine Beijing’s forces in the region.

Just last month, a Chinese vessel confronted a US Navy ship in the disputed region.

Upon the vessel’s arrival, a Chinese defence spokesman claimed Beijing’s forces quickly “expelled the US warship”.

Washington has also received help from the UK, who sent a ship near the island cluster.

Hostility between China and the UK spiked in September last year, when Britain announced its plans to send its warship HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea, sparking fury in Beijing.

The UK has periodically sent ships to the South China Sea to help other powers defy China’s controversial Nine-Dash Line claim.

In September 2018, a similar waters patrol was undertaken aboard the UK’s HMS Albion.

Previously united on an approach to China, cracks between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Trump have started to show, causing division that could upend their progress in the South China Sea.

Fresh divisions have emerged over Huawei, as the Chinese technology company has been granted a limited role in developing the UK’s 5G network.

Washington had previously warned Downing Street to steer clear of a deal with China.

Earlier this month, it was reported that Mr Johnson and Mr Trump had a huge row via a telephone call over the UK’s decision.

Trump was reported by the Financial Times to have been “apoplectic” about the decision taken by Johnson, and the phone call was said by one official to have been “very difficult” despite No.10 insisting the account was overblown.

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Although the UK has prevented Huawei from accessing areas near military sites and safety-critical networks, Washington’s concerns could drive the two historic allies apart over fears of intelligence security.

Prior to the announcement of the deal, President Trump threatened a trade war with the UK.

But Mr Johnson’s government hit back as Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the Sunday Times that Mr Trump’s foreign policy stance meant that the UK would increasingly look to other international allies instead.

He said: “Over the last year we’ve had the US pullout from Syria, the statement by Donald Trump on Iraq where he said NATO should take over and do more in the Middle East.

“The assumptions of 2010 that we were always going to be part of a US coalition is really just not where we are going to be.”

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