Fresh off a hard-fought Brexit deal with Brussels in Europe, 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.
The British military 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 “front line military struggles” which stand at the heart of China’s national security strategy in the 21st century.
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 USA and its key Asian partners – namely Japan, Australia and India – have stepped up their military cooperation to check China’s maritime ambitions.
More recently, major European NATO 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 NATO 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.
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.
The commander of the HMS Queen Elizabeth-led carrier strike group, Commodore Steve Moorehouse, was even more ecstatic. 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 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.
In response, China has accused Britain of undue interference and inflaming regional tensions. 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.
The Chinese military will take necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interest as well as peace and continuous stability in the South China Sea.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point WW III News 2021.