Royal Navy must send HMS Queen Elizabeth to South China Sea to defend it from Chinese navy
DITHERING defence chiefs are being called to ‘step up to the plate’ and send the Royal Navy’s £3.1bn aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth into contested Asian waters on her first operational mission next year, amid growing fears over China’s surging military might in the region.
The 65,000-tonne leviathan, the largest warship ever built for Britain, is due to depart on her maiden deployment early next year.
But ministers are worried about a potential pitstop in the South China Sea, which has been at the centre of an international row over navigational rights with Beijing.
The People’s Republic of China lays claim to almost all of the region, which is about 14 times the size of the UK and stretches from Malaysia to the Philippines, and from Vietnam to the edge of Indonesia.
But the international community has refuted this, insisting China is breaching international law.
It comes amid claims Chinese military vessels have rammed Vietnamese fishing craft operating in the waters earlier this year, which Beijing denies.
Former naval officer Andrew Bowie said the UK must now ‘open its eyes to the glaringly obvious’ and ‘step up to the plate’ to tackle the situation head on.
Calling on Britain to expand its naval fleet and deploy the Portsmouth-based carrier to the Pacific, the Scottish Conservative MP said: ‘With the renewed rejection in July by both America and Australia of China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, it is time that a truly global Britain steps up to the plate and meets this unwarranted and illegal encroachment with renewed assertiveness.’
In a speech to MPs in the House of Commons, Mr Bowie warned China’s naval force had boomed since 2014, with the communist state’s fleet of submarines, support ships and hi-tech warships now standing at 335 vessels – more than the total number of ships serving in the navies of Germany, India, Spain and the UK combined.
‘The size of the Chinese fleet and its rate of growth should be a clear warning of China’s determination to become a maritime superpower,’ he warned.
‘Only last week, the People’s Liberation Army launched a series of medium-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear missiles considerable distances into the South China sea.’
The deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region was mooted by prime minister Boris Johnson during his time as foreign secretary in 2017, when he insisted the UK’s two ‘new colossal aircraft carriers’ would be sent on a ‘freedom of navigation exercise’ in the region.
Last year, former defence secretary Gavin Williamson added to this and warned Britain needed to be ready to ‘use hard power’.
But since then, ministers have rowed back on the stance following threats by China in March.
Speaking this week, defence minister James Heappey said deployment details were still being finalised, adding: ‘It will be an ambitious deployment which demonstrates the UK's commitment to upholding a rules based international system and showcases our world-leading carrier capability.’
The South China Sea is responsible for £2.33tn of global trade, with a third of the world’s shipping passing through it each year.