The Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth is heading east on an extended power and influence projection deployment across the Indo-Pacific. Photo: AFP

Amid the kind of hoopla that recalled bygone eras of British maritime glory, a strike group built around the UK’s new aircraft carrier departed its homeport last weekend on its first operational deployment far into the East.

The Queen visited HMS Queen Elizabeth and spoke to the crew, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked to cameras from the vessel’s hanger, with F35s prominently parked at his back. The UK military establishment, proud that their flattop is carrying the largest air group of F35s ever put to sea, was in table-thumping mode.

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the voyage will “write Britain’s name in the next chapter of history.” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) commander Commodore Steve Moorhouse called the deployment a “new phase in Britain’s maritime renaissance,” and “the most important peacetime deployment in a generation.”

Yet aspects of the cruise, which will traverse the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the East China Sea, are conflicted.

The CSG is built around the carrier Queen Elizabeth, commissioned in 2017 and on her first operational deployment. The group comprises, according to London’s Ministry of Defense, nine ships, 32 aircraft and 3,700 personnel. A US destroyer and a Dutch frigate are escorts, and 10 of the 18 F35s on the carrier’s deck are operated by the US Marine Corps.

On the one hand, this flotilla represents alliance cooperation and inter-operability. But as a sign of British muscle – or lack thereof – it also showcases the budget-challenged Royal Navy’s inability to deploy a full air arm or an adequate escort.

The jaunt certainly represents the jingoistic Johnson’s post-Brexit dreams of an influential, power-projecting “Global UK” that can range far. And it comes as the UK – London prefers the word “tilt” to Washington’s “pivot” – is refocusing on the Indo-Pacific, seeking increased influence while energetically signing trade deals with regional economies.

But while one aim is to impress allies and influence friends around the region, it is certain to infuriate G2 economy China. Beijing considers the South China Sea its backyard and – adding fuel to fire – the flotilla’s arrival there coincides with ultra-sensitive timing for Beijing.

The cruise also presents a ticklish issue for nations that might prefer not to see another power roiling already troubled waters, nor be required to take sides in the ongoing “China versus the West” competition. For those nations, the Covid-19 pandemic may offer a convenient excuse to decline port calls.

In the region, Tokyo looks likely to roll out the reddest carpet to the sailors and marines of a maritime, island nation that is in many ways its mirror image in the western hemisphere.

Further afield, the deployment looks set to burnish London’s image in Washington, where the ruling Democratic Party was anti-Brexit. With the unilateralist Donald Trump administration now history, Joe Biden’s team has talked up alliances, notably the Quad, in recent summits with Japanese and South Korean leaders.

Constructing a democratic front of anti-China forces is certainly something Johnson is aboard with, given the G7+3 or “D10” summit to be held in London in June. That consists of the seven democratic nations of the G7, plus Australia, India and South Korea.

But longer-term questions hang over how sustainable a force the fast-shrinking UK military can maintain east of Suez. The current UK presence in the area is minimal – almost laughably so compared to the mighty US Indo-Pacific Command.

And while a bigger and bolder presence might suit Johnson’s Conservative Party, it is far less clear whether it is popular among a post-imperial UK public facing major domestic woes, including the potential break-up of their kingdom.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sits in the captain’s chair on the bridge of HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth, prior to its departure for Asia. Photo: AFP / Leon Neal

London’s shriveled footprint

The Royal Navy played major roles in both the Pacific and Korean Wars, but the UK’s retreat from empire saw the sun set on regional engagements.

British forces’ last kinetic engagement in Indo-Pacific was “Konfrontasi” – the jungle conflict against Indonesia, during which the UK sided with Malaysia in 1963-66 to considerable (though unsung) success.

Subsequently, after the UK withdrew its garrisons and bases from Hong Kong in 1997, London’s Indo-Pacific footprint has shriveled.

Now, the UK’s most expensive warship is bringing British beef back to the region. In a “projection of the UK’s global reach and influence” the CSG will “interact with over 40 nations during its 26,000-nautical-mile global tour, undertaking over 70 engagements, exercises and operations with allies and partners,” the UK’s MOD wrote.

The CSG will take part in a NATO exercise, will co-operate with French carrier Charles De Gaulle in the Mediterranean and conduct air operations against ISIS. After transiting Suez, it will visit India and Singapore before arriving in South Korea and Japan in late August or early September.

In the South China Sea, it will conduct an exercise with the “Five Powers Defence Arrangement” – the Commonwealth nations of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK. Exercises are anticipated with Japan, though its activities off South Korea are unclear.

The current voyage marks the first time a major British force has deployed to East Asia since a rising China acquired a blue-water fleet and built bases on, then weaponized, reefs and islands across the South China Sea.

Even so, there are precedents.

In recent years, small Royal Navy units have made the long voyage to Japan, conducting visits and exercises en route and taking part in the Proliferation Security Initiative in the Sea of Japan, monitoring North Korean movements.

In 2018, two frigates and then-Royal Navy flagship HMS Albion – an assault ship rather than an aircraft carrier – transited through the South China Sea on separate deployments. Beijing was not pleased and deployed its own warships as shadows.

To nobody’s surprise, China had strong words about the CSG cruise.

“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,” China’s defense spokesman said. “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.”

China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning, followed by destroyers and frigates during an exercise. Photo: AFP

The China trade trade-off

To make matters worse, the CSG will be arriving in the South China Sea at a hugely sensitive time for Beijing: July 1 this year marks the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party. 

In recent years, the CCP has been stoking nationalism nationwide by playing up the injustices a weak and flailing China suffered at the hands of foreign powers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“China will be talking about 150 years of humiliations at the hand of the UK – the Opium Wars, the gunboat diplomacy,” said Alex Neill, a British strategy consultant in Singapore. “I am sure those words will roll out in Chinese state media as the CSG approaches.”

Anglo-China relations are hardly milk and honey at present.

The UK was appalled at the National Security Law Beijing placed over Hong Kong in 2020. London countered by offering citizenship pathways to 2.9 million Hong Kongers and their 2.3 million dependents, adding to Beijing’s displeasure. Bloomberg reported that “thousands” have already arrived in the UK.

At the time of writing, London was clashing with Beijing at the UN over Chinese treatment of its Uighur ethnic minority, and hawks in Johnson’s ruling party were sounding the trumpets.

“There is a more muscular appetite within the Conservative Party of the importance of standing up to China,” said John Nilsson-Wright, a Japanese politics and international relations fellow at Darwin College, Cambridge. “The era of [former prime minister] Cameron having a ‘special partnership’ with China is over.”

This places the Johnson administration in a Catch-22 position – it may be anti-China, but is also pro-trade. And with Brexit Britain needing to super-size its trade profile beyond the EU as it tilts toward the East, irritating the world’s number-two economy might not be the most sensible ploy.

“In the post-Brexit world of ‘Global Britain,’ if you want to trade with China, sending the biggest warship the UK has ever wielded to the region right when the Party is celebrating its 100th birthday is going to go down like a lead balloon,” said Neill. “There is a UK trade commissioner based in Singapore, and she will have some interesting moments when the CSG sails through the Malacca Strait.”

These considerations may explain why the CSG, operating under the rubric of “confident but not confrontational,” will not traverse the flashpoint Taiwan Strait.

That prudence caused a storm on the pages of the right-wing Daily Telegraph, with some hawkish figures insisting the Royal Navy should do what the US Navy has done on multiple occasions, and the French navy did in 2019.

Allegations of over-cautiousness are not restricted to the UK.

“Why is the Royal Navy not crossing through the Taiwan Strait – those are international waters!” asked Tosh Minohara, a professor of Japan-US relations at the Graduate School of Law at Kobe University. “A lot of people here are saying, ‘Why did the British cop out?’”

Queen Elizabeth on the hanger deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth chatting with personnel from the Royal Navy and US Marine Corps, whose aircraft are beefing up the ship’s air arm. Photo: AFP

Trade, values, gunboats

Still, China is not the only game in the Indo-Pacific. The UK CSG deployment is taking place amid bipolarization in regional and international relations, with both China and the United States employing economic pressure to reinforce political stances.

China has sanctioned South Korea for basing a US missile defense system on its soil and Australia for demanding a probe into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan. The US has sanctioned multiple Chinese companies, forbidden the export of sensitive intellectual property and pressured allies not to purchase equipment from them.

Against this backdrop, Johnson told a TV news program: “We will be projecting not just Britain’s hard powers, our military capabilities, which are obviously extraordinary, but also our soft power, our values, our belief in democracy and the rule of law.”

Perhaps. But post-Brexit UK has already moved aggressively on the trade front toward Asian nations that are both within and without the democratic sphere. “On Johnson’s commitment to universal values … there is a kind of hollowness there,” said Nilsson-Wright.

The UK signed a free trade agreement with South Korea in 2019 and three further agreements – with Japan, Singapore and Vietnam – in 2020. All provisionally took effect from January 2021. And London wants more.

It is now seeking an FTA with Canberra, which, with its long-held “forward defense” strategy, is an enthusiastic member of the China-facing Quad alliance and is at daggers drawn with Beijing. Last week, UK media reported that – despite the concerns of British farmers – an Australia-UK deal could be finalized as early as June.

London also wants free trade with ex-colony India, which has recently clashed with China on its mountainous Himalayan border. Though New Delhi is less forthright than Canberra in the Quad, and has a long history of non-alignment, on Tuesday London launched a 14-week public consultation on an India FTA. The UK hopes to begin formal FTA talks with India later this year.

Finally, despite its location in the Atlantic, London wants into the Tokyo-led Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. To that end, the UK’s International Trade Secretary met counterparts from Japan and New Zealand in February to request the start of formal negotiations on entering the pact this year.

If the UK acceded, it would become the second-largest economy in the bloc – though some experts have warned that the UK’s entry could undermine the goal of regional economic integration. Others have suggested, that were the UK join, the bloc would need to be rebranded.

But even in a region where multiple players are variously at odds with Beijing, Nilsson-Wright said he doubts that the UK’s regional show of force will accelerate trade talks with Asia-Pacific partners, given more pressing priorities.

“The economic imperatives of securing trade deals,” Nilsson-Wright, who is also Northeast Asian fellow at think tank Chatham House, are “still powerful.”  

The second part of this two-part series will appear in Asia Times on Friday, covering the sustainability of the UK’s Indo-Pacific presence, which regional partners are likely to be the strongest and weakest backers of the UK’s deployment, and who the winners may be.