The visit of the UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group (CSG) to the Korean peninsula has got underway with less of a bang and more of a whimper.
The UK’s gunboat diplomacy in East Asian waters has been considerably more prudent than it was during the Mediterranean and Black Sea phases of its deployment.
Both London and Seoul appear more reluctant to irk Beijing than is their joint ally, Washington, which last week sent two ships through the strategic Taiwan Strait to Beijing’s displeasure.
Against this backdrop, Covid-19 may have provided a face-saving solution for both parties. A planned port call by the CSG to South Korea has been called off and the ongoing drills are low-key.
More unusually, neither US units embedded with the CSG nor those based in South Korea are taking part in the exercises.
The high-profile voyage of the Queen Elizabeth, which left her home base in May, has been hailed in the UK as a showcase of the world-ranging muscle behind a new, post-Brexit “global Britain.”
The presence of the UK Carrier Strike Group in the Indo-Pacific is a powerful demonstration of the UK’s commitment to deepening diplomatic, economic and security-based ties in the region.
In the region, the CSG has undertaken exercises with the navies of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the US and has also visited Guam.
However, the voyage of the British-led multinational flotilla has been overshadowed by a massive humiliation for Western militaries: The fall of Kabul to the Taliban after a 20-year conflict.
The CSG comprises nine ships, 32 aircraft and one submarine and is manned by 3,700 sailors, aviators and marines. US and Dutch warships are in the carrier’s escort group, and the bulk of the F35’s on her deck have US pilots.
The subordination of US assets to British command suggests both US political approval and close tactical interoperability.
The 65,000 tonne, conventionally powered Queen Elizabeth is not quite as big, butch and hairy as the 100,000 tonne nuclear-powered Gerald Ford-class US Navy carriers.
Still, as the crown jewel of the Royal Navy, the GBP3 billion man-of-war showcases cutting-edge air and sea power-projection capabilities.
And she certainly filled a gap in the cash-strapped British forces. Prior to her 2021 cruise, the Royal Navy had been without operational aircraft carriers – the ultimate admirals’ toy – since 2014.
In the Mediterranean, the CSG conducted airstrikes against Iraq and Syria. In the Black Sea, a British destroyer from the group conducted a freedom of navigation exercise, or FONOP – sailing within 12 nautical miles of a disputed territory – off the coast of Russia-held Crimea.
The CSG has behaved with greater circumspection in East Asian waters. Given Chinese capabilities – Beijing controls weaponized islands in the South China Sea, and deploys two aircraft carriers with a third under construction – that looks sensible.
Neither the Queen Elizabeth nor its sub-units conducted FONOP’s off China’s weaponized islands in the flashpoint South China Sea. Nor has it traversed the Strait of Taiwan, which Beijing sees as particularly sensitive.
China has been behaving with increasing assertiveness across the world, is powering up its armed forces, and has appalled the UK with its stance on Hong Kong.
South Korea – having suffered heavy economic retaliation from China after it permitted the deployment of US anti-missile systems on its soil in 2017 – has already learned to be extremely careful around Beijing’s strategic touchiness.
While military officials have been keen to see the new carrier up close via a port call, and there were hopes of marine drills on land, the Blue House, ever wary of triggering China, has been lukewarm.
Exercises in the Yellow Sea, off the western coast port of Pyeongtaek, home to a massive US base, would be sensitive for China and possibly for North Korea.
We can respect China’s concerns, and at the same time achieve our purposes of building standard operational procedures, gaining experience, enhance mutual understanding.
The fact that the CSG’s first operational cruise is to the Far East – its ultimate destination is Japan – is a sign of increasing British interest in a part of the world that is strategic in both economic and security terms.
The UK dispatched the second largest contingent to the UN Command, the US-led force that fought for South Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War.
That conflict, with China as the key combatant against the UN Command, remains the bloodiest London has fought since World War II.
The main military-military cooperation is naval, in the anti-submarine helicopter space. The South Korean Navy operates British Wildcat helicopters, and there is close cooperation between related units.
In June, the world’s biggest shipbuilder, Hyundai Heavy Industries made public a design for a dual-island aircraft carrier with a take-off ramp – the type pioneered by the Queen Elizabeth class.
However, despite erroneous reporting in some British media, the CSG will not be permanently stationed in East Asian waters. Therefore the Royal Navy, which is particularly short of frigates and destroyers, has no permanent patrol presence in East Asia waters.
To be precise, if the UK wants to play the role of bullying China in the region, it is demeaning itself. And if there is any real action against China, it is looking for a defeat.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point South China Sea News 2021.