Britain’s Royal Navy will deploy the country’s sole aircraft carrier to the Western Pacific when it has completed sea trials by next year as London seeks to join the United States in staring down Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Monday during a speech at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, that the UK and Western powers must be ready to “use hard power to support our interests,” and that failing to challenge or even intervene against aggressive foreign powers “risks our nation being seen as little more than a paper tiger.”
To that end, Britain plans to deploy its sole carrier, the new 65,000-ton, conventionally-powered HMS Queen Elizabeth, to one of the emerging volatile hot spots in the world, as China continues to make outsized claims throughout the South China Sea including building island bases from which it could dramatically impact (read control) one of the globe’s most lucrative trade routes.
The new carrier with its complement of 36 F-35B fighters and four helicopters would serve alongside U.S. Navy warships and others belonging to Western powers and allies in the region including Japan, Australia, and South Korea.
Williamson’s call for a tougher line against China comes as American warships increase their operational tempo in the South China Sea. Just this week a pair of guided-missile destroyers, the USS Spruance and USS Preble, conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a Beijing-controlled artificial island in the Spratly chain.
The operation, as usual, drew a stiff rebuke from the Chinese foreign ministry, which accused Washington of “provocative actions.”
Wang Yiwei, professor in international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, told the South China Morning Post that Britain was attempting to exert itself following Brexit, but that as a key U.S. ally certainly has a role to play in the region.
“The main motive of British politicians is to salvage damaged confidence in the country’s future as Brexit … has caused huge uncertainty. They are trying to demonstrate strength and power,” he said.
Possibly. But overall, Britain appears to have come to realize that its military power has waned since the Cold War — especially its naval might — in ways that are not good for the country’s long-term national security interests. HMS Queen Elizabeth, along with her companion carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, are the largest warships ever built by the Royal Navy, coming 100 years after London began work on its first multi-purpose aircraft carrier.
In late 2018, Williamson announced plans for a new British naval base in the Western Pacific region, perhaps in Singapore or Brunei, as well as a more permanent presence in the area.