British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson yesterday committed the UK’s two brand new aircraft carriers to freedom of navigation exercises in the fiercely contested waters of the South China Sea.
In pointed remarks aimed squarely at China — whose island-building and militarization in the sea has unnerved Western powers — Johnson said that when the ships are in service they would be sent to the Asia-Pacific region as one of their first assignments.
“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,” Johnson said in Sydney.
The South China Sea is one of the busiest commercial sea routes in the world, through which US$5 trillion in trade transits per year.
However, China claims it enjoys exclusive control over a massive portion of the sea — within the so-called “nine-dash line” — based on ancient rights marked in 600-year-old mariners’ books.
In a dispute with four neighboring nations, including Taiwan, China has claimed sovereignty over islands in international waters in the sea and has built up sandbars and atolls into usable land.
The Hague, Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration last year ruled that there was no legal basis for China’s historic claim, a decision China has furiously rejected.
Sending Britain’s newest and most expensive ships to the region to carry out maneuvers similar to those of the US Navy could be seen as provocative by Beijing.
At 280m and 65,000 tonnes, Britain’s newest aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy.
It is undergoing its maiden sea trials off the coast of Scotland, and is expected to be accepted by the British navy toward the end of this year.
The second ship of the class, the HMS Prince of Wales, is being fitted out in a Scottish dock and is to be officially named in September.
Speaking in Sydney following discussions with Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, 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,” he added.
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,” Bishop said.
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