The United Kingdom’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will lead a flotilla of Royal Navy ships through Asian waters on port visits to Japan and South Korea on its maiden deployment, the British embassy in Tokyo has announced, as Australia warned of threats of conflict in the region.
The high-profile voyage, announced by the British embassy on Monday, is aimed at bolstering security ties in East Asia and comes amid tensions in the region as concern grows in Japan over any threat posed to neighbouring Taiwan by China, as well as increased tensions in the disputed South China Sea.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and US President Joe Biden issued a joint statement this month addressing China’s growing assertiveness and the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait following their first face-to-face meeting in Washington since both became leaders of their countries.
The British carrier strike group which includes the Queen Elizabeth and 18 F-35B stealth fighters, two destroyers, two frigates and two support ships will have to sail through the South China Sea on its way to East Asia. China claims almost the entire sea while Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam also claim parts of it.
The ships will also stop in India and Singapore, the Royal Navy said on Monday.
It will be joined by vessels from the United States and a frigate from the Netherlands and will carry out exercises with forces from Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, the UAE, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Israel, India, Oman and South Korea, the British government said in a statement.
Other foreign ships currently in Asian waters include a French amphibious carrier and two US navy aircraft carriers, one of which, the USS Ronald Reagan, is based in Japan.
On Friday, Japan announced that it would also host a military drill with the US and France from May 11 to 17.
‘Beating the drums of war’
A close Washington ally, Japan hosts the biggest concentration of US military forces outside the United States, including warships, planes and thousands of marines.
The latest, and so far most conspicuous, visit to Japan by British forces follows an earlier deployment of warships, jet fighters and troops for joint training exercises.
Royal Marines from 42 Commando will also deploy with the carrier, as well as the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen and the American Arleigh Burke destroyer USS The Sullivans.
The deployment comes as Australia’s Home Affairs Department Secretary Mike Pezzullo, a top security official, said the possibility of war was increasing.
“Today, as free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues that we had, until recent years, thought unlikely to be catalysts for war, let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again … for the curse of war,” Pezzullo said in a letter to staff on Anzac Day on Sunday, when Australia and New Zealand honour their war dead.
Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said earlier on Sunday that a conflict involving China over Taiwan “should not be discounted”.
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said he hoped Australia was aware of the “sensitive” nature of the issue and could “avoid sending any wrong signal to Taiwan independence forces”.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory and has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.