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Eyes on China as British Aircraft Carrier Group Heads to South Sea for Military Drill

F-35B Lightning II aircraft are seen on the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier offshore Portugal, May 27, 2021.

A British-led aircraft carrier group voyage that will take the HMS Queen Elizabeth to the disputed South China Sea would push Beijing further into an angry defensive position, analysts believe.

The 65,000-ton aircraft carrier with more than 30 aircraft plans to visit the Asian waterway for military drills with the U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces, British media outlets say. The ships set sail in May for a world journey of seven months, the Royal Navy said on its website without specifying when it would reach the South China Sea. A Dutch frigate and an American destroyer have joined the group.

China will see the voyage as a sign that Western allies are marshaling forces against it, experts say. Chinese officials claim 90% of the sea as China’s, citing historic usage records. Militarily weaker Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or parts of the same sea, overlapping Chinese claimed waters.

As China builds up islands in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer, resource-rich sea for military installations and expands its navy, Western countries have been sending ships over the past half year as a warning against that expansion and a gesture of support for the smaller claimants.

“I think the Chinese will be upset,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo. Chinese officials will say the voyage reflects a “Cold War mentality” and a “containment mentality” aimed at China, he said.

“It will reaffirm their view that the United States is now clearly intent on stopping China’s rise and preventing China’s development, but the reality is the U.K. has limited resources it can lend to the region and it’s more symbolic than a tangible increase,” he said.

China regularly protests U.S. Navy voyages into the sea, 10 of which took place last year following another 10 in 2019. China sometimes follows up with military drills. The U.K. and the United States are close allies.

The Beijing government cannot “forget” that Britain once colonized parts of China, including Hong Kong, said Chen Yi-fan, assistant diplomacy and international relations professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

China’s reaction to the voyage will hinge on time the U.K. spends in the sea, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.

“It really depends on the U.K.’s efforts, whether it can actually present itself in the region on a regular basis,” Yang said.

Welcomed in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian maritime claimants will welcome the British voyage, though careful to spin their support in a way to avoid upsetting China, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Much of Southeast Asia counts China as a top trading partner. Malaysia and Singapore, as former British colonies, though, have particularly strong ties to the U.K., Oh said.

“I think we have the same attitude as the British, namely we don’t want to unduly upset China because, whether we like it or not, China is our largest trading partner,” said Oh, who is Malaysian. “But at the same time, it is important to also show to Chinese that we are not retreating from our claims of sovereignty.”

Power projection

British officials for their part hope to “project strong relations” around maritime Asia following their break from the European Union, Nagy said. He tips the country to work more closely in the future with Japan and the United States on Indo-Pacific issues where they disagree with China.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth group will visit 40 nations, including Japan, over its course of 48,152 kilometers, according to a Royal Navy statement on May 22.

U.K. Carrier Strike Group Commander, Commodore Steve Moorhouse, called the voyage the “most important peacetime deployment in a generation,” according to the navy’s statement.