UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said that the first job of Britain’s two new aircraft carriers will be a freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea.
The move is likely to rankle China, whose island-building and militarisation of the disputed waters has been raising concerns among western powers.
Speaking during a visit to Sydney, Mr Johnson said: “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.”
The South China Sea is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, carrying $5 trillion worth of trade every year.
Beijing has unilaterally laid claim to the vast bulk of the waters, despite competing claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and others.
To bolster its claim, several islands have been populated and militarised with airfields, weapons systems and ports. As we reported this week, they have even installed a cinema on Woody Island, which they have declared to be the seat of a new maritime province.
Last year the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague ruled in favour of a claim by the Philippines that there was no legal basis for China’s historic claim, a decision that Beijing has furiously rejected.
Sending Britain’s newest and most expensive ships to the region to carry out manoeuvres similar to those frequently carried out by the US Navy could be seen by Beijing as provocative.
The ruling has also been effectively ignored by President Duterte in favour of building closer ties with China.
At 280 metres and 65,000 tonnes, the HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy. It is currently undergoing sea trials off the coast of Scotland and is expected to enter active service later this year.
The second ship in the class, the HMS Prince of Wales, is still being fitted out in the Rosyth dock, Scotland.
Speaking in Sydney after discussions with his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, Mr Johnson said the UK and Australia had reaffirmed “our shared dedication to the rules-based international system that has been the guarantor of stability and, of course, also of prosperity for the last 70 years.
“In a volatile and unpredictable world it is more important than ever to nurture the friendships that we know best and that matter to us the most and with people we trust the most.”
Bishop said the ministers had discussed the South China Sea as one of the pressing “challenges” of the Asia-Pacific region. “We had a long discussion about the Pacific and the opportunities for deeper British engagement in our part of the world. We also see the United Kingdom as being a natural partner with us in the development and security of the Pacific,” she said.
In a speech in Sydney later in front of hundreds of politicians and businesspeople, Mr Johnson reiterated his pledge to send the carriers.
“If you look at those vessels – you will see that they are not only longer than the entire Palace of Westminster but, I think you will agree, they are more persuasive than most of the arguments deployed in the House of Commons.
“And we pledge to send the carriers not because we have enemies in the region, but because we believe in upholding the rule of law.”
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