Fresh off a hard-fought Brexit deal with Brussels, the United Kingdom has immediately plunged itself into the center of Asian geopolitics and on a maritime collision course with China.
Touting itself as “a global power with truly global interest”, the UK has announced the successful initial test of the newly-launched aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, its largest warship on record.
Having achieved initial operational capacity, the UK’s flagship Carrier Strike Group — centered on the 65,000-tonne carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth with state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighter jets, helicopters, submarines, frigates and destroyers — can now be deployed within just five days of initial notice for any global contingency.
Regional media reports suggest that Asia’s contested waters, including the South China Sea, will be its first major area of deployment in the coming months.
At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the country’s armed forces to maintain “full-time combat readiness” and “act at any second” in response to external threats amid Western powers’ “flexing muscles.”
In comments to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Xi highlighted real and emerging “frontline military struggles” which stand at the heart of China’s national security strategy in the 21st century.
His comments, which came as the PLA commenced its first major drills of the year on January 4 following unprecedented “four seas” naval drills last year, stood in shaper contrast to his more measured rhetoric last year, when he emphasized the need to “manage crises and deter war.”
China military expert Song Zhongping has warned, “China is indeed facing a great risk of war, which has been seriously implied in this order.”
In the past decade, the US and its key Asian partners – namely Japan, Australia and India – have stepped up their defense cooperation to check China’s maritime ambitions.
More recently, major European powers such as France and Germany have also announced their “Indo-Pacific” strategies, with the rise of a more assertive China representing a central geopolitical concern.
Despite its fraught exit from the European Union, the UK also remains a cornerstone of the transatlantic alliance and is a “resident power” in the Indo-Pacific region, where it maintains overseas territories as well as a network of military outposts and naval facilities.
And as a veto-bearing permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council, the UK views itself as a guardian of the international liberal order, including the need for preserving freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters.
Last year, then-UK Defense Minister Gavin Williamson made it clear, “The UK is a global power with truly global interest – we must be prepared to compete for our interests and our values far, far from home.”
Though once a thriving empire in possession of large colonies across the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, Britain is yet to release its own comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy. But post-Brexit Britain clearly hopes to assert its historical role in the region through, among others, flexing its naval muscles.
In a statement, the UK Defense Minister Jeremy Quin celebrated the country’s $3.9 billion newly-minted aircraft carrier’s operational readiness as “a hugely significant milestone.” He said it “is a testament to the determination of our service personnel and industry workforce who have delivered this first-rate military capability, a capability held by only a handful of nations.”
The commander of the HMS Queen Elizabeth-led carrier strike group, Commodore Steve Moorehouse, was even more ecstatic, recently tweeting, “In practical terms, my Strike Group is now at Very High Readiness, meaning we are at five days’ notice to deploy, if required, in response to global events & in defense of British interests.”
The naval commander characterized the carrier group’s scheduled overseas deployment to the Indo-Pacific as the largest of its kind in the past quarter-century and as “a visible demonstration of Global Britain.”
The British armada is expected to pass through contested waters, including the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits en route to joint naval drills with the US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces in the East China Sea by the end of the year.
The UK, along with other major European powers, believe that their robust naval presence in Asia is crucial to maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters.
Indeed, a recent report by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has portrayed China as the most formidable geopolitical challenge in the coming decades.
It portrays China as a potential comprehensive threat to the Western military alliance since Beijing “will likely also challenge NATO’s ability to build collective resilience, safeguard critical infrastructure, address new and emerging technologies such as 5G and protect sensitive sectors of the economy including supply chains.”
Drafted by ten leading experts appointed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the report argues, “Longer term, China is increasingly likely to project military power globally, including potentially in the Euro-Atlantic area,” and that “If allies are threatened by China, NATO must be able to demonstrate its ability to be an effective actor to provide protection.”
In a scathing criticism of China’s strategic behavior in recent years, the report argues that the Asian power “has proven its willingness to use force against its neighbors, as well as economic coercion and intimidatory diplomacy well beyond the Indo-Pacific region.”
NATO and its global allies, the report suggests, “must devote much more time, political resources and action to the security challenges posed by China” and “should enhance its ability to coordinate strategy and safeguard allies’ security vis-à-vis China.”
Last September, Britain joined fellow European countries France and Germany in an unprecedented joint note verbale to the United Nations, where they openly criticized China’s perceived aggressive behavior in adjacent waters and reiterated the legitimate and lawful interests of other claimant states and external powers in accordance to the 2016 arbitral tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea.
In response, China has accused Britain of undue interference and inflaming regional tensions. In his monthly press briefing, China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei reiterated, “China believes that the South China Sea should not become a sea of great power rivalry dominated by weapons and warships.”
“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,” he added.
“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 Chinese defense ministry warned.