The deployment of a British aircraft carrier and her strike group is politically symbolic as it serves to validate the concept of ‘Global Britain’ and as such the deployment is certainly political, but it also serves a strategic aim.
The British ’tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific is based on several concerns such as economics (the economies of the region are growing at a substantial rate) and security (to preserve freedom of navigation in the face of China claiming vast swatches of the world’s oceans).
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Simply put, the UK believes that the increasing power and international assertiveness of China is likely to be one of the most significant geopolitical factors in the world today and it feels it needs to be involved.
The British government recently published a policy document outlining the country’s comprehensive strategic framework for engaging with the world for the next decade.
The 100-page document titled ‘Global Britain in a competitive age — The Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy’ states that the Indo-Pacific region is critical to the UK’s economy, security and global ambition to support open societies.
Don’t take my word for it, the following mentions China.
“To meet the Prime Minister’s vision for 2030, we will need a long-term strategic approach – combining all the instruments available to government – that continues to adapt to a changing international environment. This is a context defined by: geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts, such as China’s increasing international assertiveness and the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific; systemic competition, including between states, and between democratic and authoritarian values and systems of government; rapid technological change; and transnational challenges, such as climate change, biosecurity risks, terrorism and SOC.”
“Indo-Pacific: we will pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific in support of shared prosperity and regional stability, with stronger diplomatic and trading ties. This approach recognises the importance of powers in the region such as China, India and Japan, and extends to others including South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. We will seek closer relations through existing institutions such as ASEAN and seek accession to the CPTPP.”
“China: we will do more to adapt to China’s growing impact on many aspects of our lives as it becomes more powerful in the world. We will invest in enhanced China-facing capabilities, through which we will develop a better understanding of China and its people, improving our ability to respond to the systemic challenge that China poses to our security, prosperity and values – and those of our allies and partners. We will continue to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China, while ensuring our national security and values are protected. We will also cooperate with China in tackling transnational challenges such as climate change.”
Why does this matter to Britain? To put it simply, freedom of navigation.
While the Royal Navy plans to forward deploy patrol vessels to bases in the region, it is the carrier strike group which is paving the way and sending a message, ‘Britain is capable of deploying serious firepower to back up its obligations in the region’.
In fact, British military aims for the region don’t stop at a patrol vessel and a very occasional carrier visit.
The aforementioned deployment of a River class patrol vessel in 2021 is certainly the primary short-term addition to British naval forces in the Indo-Pacific but in the late 2020s, Type 31 frigates are going to be permanently based in the region, patrolling the British Overseas Territories and paying visits to friendly nations with the aim of building relationships.
Local nations have very strong concerns about security in the region in the face of increasing Chinese claims on vast swathes of ocean, the presence of a British carrier group and soon more British warships is likely to stop China from undertaking any major moves against countries in the region as that could risk the wider involvement of the U.S., UK, and other powers.
Referring to the concept of ‘Freedom fo Navigation’, the strategy document states:
“For our security – the region is at the centre of intensifying geopolitical competition with multiple potential flashpoints: from unresolved territorial disputes; to nuclear proliferation and miscalculation; to climate change and non-state threats from terrorism and SOC. It is on the frontline of new security challenges, including in cyberspace. Much of the UK’s trade with Asia depends on shipping that goes through a range of Indo-Pacific choke points. Preserving freedom of navigation is therefore essential to the UK’s national interests. We already work closely with regional partners and will do more through persistent engagement by our armed forces and our wider security capacity-building.”
So what are they going to do?
“Deploy more of our naval assets across the world to protect shipping lanes and uphold freedom of navigation. The Joint Maritime Security Centre will support this, strengthening operational maritime coordination across government. The Royal Navy’s Maritime Component Command in Bahrain will continue to ensure the flow of trade in the Gulf, including through support to part of the new International Maritime Security Construct.”
China claims practically the whole 1.3 million-square-mile South China Sea as its sovereign territory, and it has blamed foreign warships for escalating tensions in the region.
Freedom of navigation operations are routinely conducted by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia to counter what the West refers to as “attempts by coastal states to unjustly limit access to the seas” and HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Carrier Strike Group is simply another instance of these efforts.