Ben Doherty — The Guardian July 27, 2017
Boris Johnson has committed the UK’s two brand new aircraft carriers to freedom of navigation exercises in the fiercely contested waters of the South China Sea.
In a pointed declaration aimed squarely at China, whose island-building and militarisation in the sea has unnerved western powers, the British foreign secretary said that when the ships came into service they would be sent to the Asia-Pacific region as one of their first assignments.
“One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area,” Johnson said in Sydney on Thursday, “to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.”
He later reiterated the point in a speech – only to confuse listeners by adding in a Q&A: “We haven’t yet quite decided to do that … but they are coming.”
The South China Sea is one of the busiest commercial sea routes in the world, carrying $5tn worth of trade a year. China claims it enjoys exclusive control over a massive portion of the sea – within the so-called nine-dash line – based on ancient rights marked in 600-year-old mariners’ books.
In dispute with four neighbouring countries, China has claimed sovereignty over islands in international waters in the sea, and built up sandbars and atolls into usable land. Several key islands have been populated and militarised with airfields, weapons systems and ports.
Sending Britain’s newest and most expensive ships to the region to carry out manoeuvres similar to those conducted by the US navy could be seen by Beijing as provocative.
At 280 metres and 65,000 tonnes, the UK’s newest aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy. It is undergoing its maiden sea trials off the coast of Scotland and is expected to be accepted by the navy towards the end of the year.
The second ship in the class, the HMS Prince of Wales, is being fitted out in the Rosyth dock and will be officially named in September.
Speaking in Sydney after discussions with his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, Johnson said the UK and Australia had reaffirmed “our shared dedication to the rules-based international system that has been the guarantor of stability and, of course, also of prosperity for the last 70 years.”
He added: “In a volatile and unpredictable world it is more important than ever to nurture the friendships that we know best and that matter to us the most and with people we trust the most.”
Bishop said the ministers had discussed the South China Sea as one of the pressing “challenges” of the Asia-Pacific region. “We had a long discussion about the Pacific and the opportunities for deeper British engagement in our part of the world … we also see the United Kingdom as being a natural partner with us in the development and security of the Pacific,” she said.
In a speech in Sydney later in front of hundreds of politicians and businesspeople, Johnson reiterated the pledge to send the carriers.
“If you look at those vessels – you will see that they are not only longer than the entire Palace of Westminster but, I think you will agree, they are more persuasive than most of the arguments deployed in the House of Commons,” he said.