Then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told Australian ministers in 2018 that HMS Queen Elizabeth would conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the disputed South China Sea region on her maiden deployment this year.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said:
“We spoke about the challenges including in the South China Sea and we had a long discussion about the Pacific and the opportunities for deeper British engagement in our part of the world.”
Johnson (now Prime Minister) said at the time in response to concerns raised regarding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea:
“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.”
We reported recently that it had emerged that the UK plans to sail HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific in 2021.
Commodore Michael Utley, Commander United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group, is reported by Save The Royal Navy here as saying that HMS Queen Elizabeth will be escorted by two Type 45 destroyers, two Type 23 frigates, a nuclear submarine, a Tide-class tanker and RFA Fort Victoria. The ship will also carry 24 F-35B jets, including US Marine Corps aircraft, in addition to a number of helicopters.
Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting, Minister of State for the Ministry of Defence, said in November this year:
“The deployment of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH will demonstrate the UK’s commitment to upholding a rules-based international system and showcase our world-leading carrier capability. The UK has enduring interests in the region and is committed to maintaining regional security, including asserting its rights to freedom of navigation and overflight as laid out in UNCLOS. Wherever the Royal Navy operate, they do so in full compliance with international laws and norms and exercise their rights to freedom of navigation and overflight provided for by UNCLOS.”
What are freedom of navigation operations?
‘Freedom of navigation operations’ are designed to reinforce internationally-recognised rights and freedoms by challenging excessive maritime claims. The particulars of each operation are determined by the excessive maritime claim that is being protested.
What was China’s response?
“The Chinese side believes that the South China Sea should not become a sea of great power rivalry dominated by weapons and warships. The real source of militarisation in the South China Sea comes from countries outside this region sending their warships thousands of kilometres from home to flex muscles. 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.”
What happened last time?
In 2018, assault ship HMS Albion was challenged by a Chinese frigate and two helicopters during freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea.
Local media report that both sides remained calm during the encounter and the Royal Navy assault ship continued on course despite protests from China.