Britain ‘Tilts’ East: Will Deploy Warships in Asia Permanently, Challenge Chinese Territory Claims

This picture taken on July 1, 2021 shows a view of the take-off ramp of the Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier while moored in the new port of Cyprus' southern city of Limassol. - HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy, docks at …
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The United Kingdom has the right to sail its latest aircraft carrier anywhere in the world international law permits and will do so, the country has said just weeks before it is due to travel through the contested South China Sea.

Britain’s defence secretary Ben Wallace, presently in Japan as part of a tour of Asia meeting allies and speaking as a British carrier strike group sails through the Indian Ocean on its way to exercises with partners in the Pacific, has made clear the UK will be challenging China at sea. The deployment is part of what Wallace and others call Britain’s “tilt” to the Pacific, a strategic move that has been ongoing for years but which is accelerating post-Brexit.

The United Kingdom will permanently deploy two warships to Asia from this year, Wallace said in a joint announcement with Japanese defence minister  Nobuo Kishi, Reuters reports. There is also a longer-term ambition to permanently deploy a unit of elite Royal Marines for counter-terrorism and other operations to the region.

Despite the considerable logistical work required to keep warships deployed, the ships would not have a permanent base in the Pacific, it was said. The closest permanent Royal Navy base is the newly reactivated HMS Jufair in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf.

The United Kingdom does have theoretical access to the ports of several allies in the region, though, including Japan, the United States, and Australia. Alternatively, Jufair is also home to a British auxiliary logistics ship that could provide support at sea.

London’s Times reports the remarks of Wallace when he spoke of Britain’s intention to sail the new carrier strike group through contested international waters presently claimed by China, in what is generally termed a freedom of navigation exercise. He said: “It’s no secret that China shadows and challenges ships transiting international waters on very legitimate routes… We will respect China and we hope that China respects us… we will sail where international law allows.”

China has colonised a series of small islands and reefs in the South China Sea, claiming rights over large swathes of water through which important global shipping lanes pass. If these claims are uncontested, control of those spaces may eventually be de-facto seceded to China, which could cause problems for global commerce in the long run. Global navies from pro-free trade nations like the United Kingdom and United States see it as a responsibility to sail their warships through such waters to prove to others that it is possible and safe to do so.

The freedom of navigation cruise by China is likely to take place in just weeks time after the British carrier group transited the Suez Canal a fortnight ago. It will also visit India, Singapore, and South Korea. After exercising in the Pacific, the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier will visit the Japanese port of Yokosuka.

The Royal Navy also conducted a freedom of navigation cruise through the Black sea last month, when two warships detached from the main body of the carrier group diverted for meetings and ceremonies with the Ukrainian government. While transiting after the events, the two ships — one Royal Navy and one Dutch Navy — sailed through an international transit lane that passed close to Crimea, the Ukranian territory presently occupied by the Russian military.

Russia retaliated at the perceived slight, shadowing the ships and firing “warning shots”. The British government played down the incident.

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