Tuesday 20 July 2021 2:00 pm

British warships are traversing the world to the South China sea as the UK strengthens its foreign policy

James Rogers is Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy

The expedition to the South China sea by the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group (CSG) is the largest display of British maritime power in a generation. The group, led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is complete with combat jets, two destroyers, two frigates, two replenishment vessels and a nuclear attack submarine. They are supported by HNLMS Evertsen of the Dutch Navy and F35B Lightning IIs from the US Marine Corps.

The group of warships, traversing around the world, made headlines last month in Syria, where they struck at ISIS. Commodore Moorhouse, the CSG’s commander, said of the strikes: “now we are ready to deliver the hard punch of maritime-based air power against a shared enemy.” 

Having broken away from the CSG for a tour of the Black Sea, HMS Defender drew the Kremlin’s ire as it steamed passed Russian occupied Crimea. HMS Defender’s mission was an important rebuke to Russia’s illegitimate claims over Ukrainian territory and waters. 

Next, the CSG transited the Suez Canal en-route to its final destination: the Indo-Pacific. Some might wonder why Britain is deploying such a large maritime force so far from home. The answer is simple: firstly, the deployment boosts interoperability with Britain’s allies and partners, helping to uphold collective security. 

By working with the US, Japan, India, and the members of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), the CSG will enhance cooperation between free and open Indo-Pacific countries. 

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the warships’ exercises across the Indo-Pacific region “highlights the renewed importance we place on the UK’s long-standing defence and security relationships with our valued partners and allies in the region.”

The deployment also marks the start of a new British geostrategy: the forward deployment of military assets to distant theatres to deter revisionist states from closing off or taking control of the international order. For example, once the CSG arrives in the South China Sea, destroyers and frigates are expected to break away from HMS Queen Elizabeth to perform movements similar to the one HMS Defender carried out in the Black Sea in June. 

China has made numerous illegitimate and excessive maritime claims over parts – even all – of the South China Sea, claims opposed by almost all neighbouring states. Chinese control depends on its acceptance by the rest of the world. The CSG’s presence aims to flatly and decisely reject Beijing’s unjust claims. 

In response, Chinese naval assets may try to force Royal Navy warships to change course, and will undoubtedly claim they have succeeded regardless of the truth – narratives the Royal Navy should stand ready to counter.

Just under 12 per cent of British trade, and approximately 21 per cent of global trade, passes through the South China Sea each year, according to China Power. The UK cannot ignore Beijing’s illegitimate maritime claims. The free navigation by all in the South China Sea is an essential part of the open international trade infrastructure.

As one of the leading naval forces afloat today, the Royal Navy’s mission to build collective action with allies and uphold freedom of navigation is an essential cornerstone of Britain’s forward-leaning foreign policy. 

It has already put Russia in its place in the Black Sea, repressed Isis in the Levant, and likely will challenge Chinese claims to the South China Sea, proving that authoritarian regimes cannot do as they please. As the CSG moves further into the Indo-Pacific, it will weave “Global Britain” into the diplomatic and strategic fabric of the region, to uphold freedom and openness, and to maintain global peace.

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