KEY POINTS

  • HMS Queen Elizabeth to sail to South China Sea in first operational mission
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson mooted this in 2017 as foreign secretary
  • The carrier strike group will be accompanied by 10 other warships

China warned the British Royal Navy that it would take steps to safeguard its sovereignty amid reports that HMS Queen Elizabeth may include the contentious waters of the South China Sea in its first operational mission.

In a monthly press meet held in Beijing, defense ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said, "China believes that the South China Sea should not become a sea of great power rivalry dominated by weapons and warships. The Chinese military will take necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interest as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea.”  

"The real source of militarization in the South China Sea comes from countries outside this region sending their warships thousands of kilometers from home to flex muscles,” Tan added.

HMS Queen Elizabeth and its strike group are expected to join the American military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces near Japan’s Ryukyu Islands by the end of 2021, reported South China Morning Post, citing Kyodo News. 

The deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region was  mooted  by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2017 when he was the foreign secretary. Former defense minister Gavin Williamson said in February 2019 that the carrier’s first operational mission would include the South China Sea.

The move assumes significance in the backdrop of China's increasing assertiveness in the East and South China seas, a critical shipping lane. It lays claim to almost all of the region, which stretches from Malaysia to the Philippines, and from Vietnam to the edge of Indonesia. Criticizing Beijing for militarizing the region, the U.S. regularly sends warships to challenge the Chinese claims.

For its part, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense plans to deploy its biggest flotilla of warships to Asia in a generation. 

The carrier strike group, led by $3.9 billion, 65,000-ton aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be accompanied by 10 other warships, which includes a mix of destroyers, frigates, support ships and submarines, including a vessel from a NATO ally, reported The Diplomat. 

In September, Britain joined France and Germany in endorsing the 2016 arbitral tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea, which dismissed China’s claim over the region. A Hague tribunal had ruled that China's history-based territorial claims  to the area lacked legal basis and were contrary to an international maritime convention.

The UK believes a persistent British naval presence in Asia would help support freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea.

Over the last few years, Britain’s relations with China have deteriorated significantly over Huawei and Hong Kong and the UK naval presence in Asia would be another source of tension in Sino-British relations.

UK royal navy Representational image Photo: AFP/Getty Images