Britain has announced plans to send its newest and most powerful aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, intensifying an already-tense stand-off with China over who controls the waterway.
UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, in a speech Monday morning.
The mission, announced at the the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London on Monday, marks the most significant deployment yet of Royal Navy assets to the South China Sea.
In August 2018, China criticised the “provocative actions” of HMS Albion who sailed close to the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea, which China says are its territory.
The Queen Elizabeth’s mission is likely to provoke a similar response.
Williamson said that Royal Air Force F-35 fighter jets will be aboard the Queen Elizabeth, along with F-35s from the US military.
The Queen Elizabeth, which cost some $4.5 billion, recently qualified for full-fledged service, after completing training with F-35B jets near Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, in September 2018.
After conducting the South China Sea mission, Williamson said the Queen Elizabeth would move on to the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Both the US and UK navies have had close calls with China in the South China Sea.
One US destroyer, on a freedom-of-navigation exercise in October 2018, sailed close to Chinese-occupied territory and passed a Chinese destroyer as close as 45 feet.
The US and UK conducted their first join maneuvers in the region since 2010 on January 11 2019, when Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll joined the US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell on a communications drill.
China claims that the South China Sea is its territory, Neighboring Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam have rival claims over it.
The sea is a vital and highly sort after trade route — about $3 trillion of ship-borne trade passes through the area every year.
The same day as Williamson made the announcement, US destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble sailed close to the Spratly Islands, which was condemned by China.
Chinese state media cited a government spokesperson saying the mission “undermined the peace, security, and order” of the region.