|HMS Queen Elizabeth (Click Image to Enlarge)|
HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy's newest and biggest aircraft carrier, was launched recently from Rosyth in Scotland and will eventually be joined by her sister ship, the HMS Prince of Wales.
The ships mark a return to form for a navy which has been without aircraft carriers since 2011 and there are reports that both ships will eventually be sent to the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where China and the US are already engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse.
The Prime Minister with U.K Foreign Secretary @BorisJohnson and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. 🇦🇺🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/f0X322CP1a— The PMO (@thepmo) July 26, 2017
On Thursday (July 27) in a speech in Australia, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said the carriers would be sent on a "freedom-of-navigation operation" through the South China Sea, which Beijing sees as its own back yard.
"One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom-of-navigation operation to this area to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade," Mr. Johnson bragged.
Mr. Johnson met his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, and discussed co-operation in the Pacific Rim.
HMS Prince of Wales naming ceremony date announced - https://t.co/rS2EP55qQE pic.twitter.com/sAjkfIMmp1— UK Defence Journal (@UKDefJournal) July 27, 2017
But Mr. Johnson was almost immediately reined in by Britain's defense minister, Michael Fallon, who said the carriers would not be heading for Asia any time soon.
"We hope to send a warship to the region next year. We have not finalized exactly where that deployment will take place but we won't be constrained by China from sailing through the South China Sea. We have the right of freedom of navigation and we will exercise it," said Mr. Fallon.
China bristles at the mention of foreign warships entering the South China Sea.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry recently said the presence of a US destroyer near the Paracel Islands chain was "a serious political and military provocation." Until the 1940s the Royal Navy was the most powerful force in the world but British sea power in Asia was effectively ended by the Japanese.
A few days after Pearl Harbor the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the cruiser HMS Repulse were sunk by Japanese bombers off the coast of Malaya and two months later Japanese forces took the British colony of Singapore.
Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow at Chatham House's Asia Program and author of the book South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, said Britain would want to remain neutral in the dispute between Beijing and her neighbors, Philippines and Vietnam.
"Britain is neutral on the question of which country is the rightful owner of which rock and reef and island. I don't think that is the issue. The issue for Britain is that all states have the freedom to sail wherever they want," he told Sputnik.
"They can go through the territorial sea on what is called 'innocent passage' or they can do military exercises in the exclusive economic zone of other countries," he added.
"The dispute there is with China because China in many ways claims the right to stop other countries sailing through the exclusive economic zone," Mr. Hayton told Sputnik.
He said that Russian and Chinese ships were ironically sailing through the exclusive economic zone of the Baltic states.
"China can't have it both ways," said Mr. Hayton.
"I don't think Britain will do anything particularly provocative. I don't think they are going to sail next to a Chinese base and test fire missiles. But I think they are just going to make the point that if Britain wants to send a warship to visit Japan, for example, it can do so and it doesn't require Chinese permission to sail through the South China Sea," Mr. Hayton told Sputnik.
This story first appeared on Sputnik & is reposted here with permission.