One of America's closest allies is preparing to put China's claims to the test in the South China Sea.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson revealed at a high-level meeting in Sydney, Australia, that the UK will be sending its new aircraft carriers into the region to uphold freedom of navigation and the rules-based international order. Australia has been hesitant to act, fearing increased tension with Beijing.
"One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built," Johnson explained, "is send them on a freedom-of-navigation operation to this area 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."
The UK's new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is undergoing maiden sea trials and is expected to be commissioned into the Royal Navy later this year.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth. Photo from UK Royal Navy
British Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon confirmed the deployment without providing any real details. "We haven't mapped out the initial deployments yet but, yes, you would expect to see these carriers in the India Pacific Ocean, this part of the world because it is in this part of the world we see increasing tension, increasing challenges," Fallon told the Australia Broadcasting Corporation.
Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne hinted that Australia might also step up its activities in the area.
"Importantly today, we also discussed developments in our region, particularly with respect to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight which is a global issue and countries like Australia and the United Kingdom have a shared interest in those global freedoms," Payne said, adding, "We agreed today that we would identify opportunities to conduct, where possible, cooperative activities in the region when we have assets that are in the area at the same time."
Royal Australian Navy Anzac Class frigate HMAS Warramunga. Canadian Forces Combat Camera Photo By Master Corporal Mathieu Gaudreault
There still appears to be a certain hesitancy to make the same commitment as the Americans and the British.
China claims the vast majority of the South China Sea, asserting its dominance through the illegal development of artificial islands, the construction of military outposts, and regular naval and bomber patrols in the area. Beijing's claims were discredited by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last year, but China rejected both the authority and ruling of the arbitration tribunal, declaring its sovereignty over massive swaths of the ocean to be indisputable.
The Trump administration has started putting increased pressure on China, which has so far failed to rein in North Korea, a major point of concern for the new administration. The US Navy has conducted two freedom-of-navigation operations and two bomber overflights in the South China Sea, angering Beijing.