Boris Johnson said the deployment will show countries such as China that Britain believes in the international law of the sea. He explained that the Carrier Strike Group, which will interact with more than 40 nations on the deployment through the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea to Japan, would project Britain’s values as well as its military capabilities. It comes as a threat to Beijing which has laid claims to the entirety of the South China Sea.
Mr Johnson said: “One of the things we’ll be doing clearly is showing to our friends in China that we believe in the international law of the sea, and in a confident but not a confrontational way, we will be vindicating that point.
“We don’t want to antagonise anybody, but we do think that the United Kingdom plays a very important role, with friends and partners, the Americans, the Dutch, the Australians, the Indians many, many others, in upholding the rule of law, the international rules-based system on which we all depend.”
HMS Queen Elizabeth took part in NATO exercises in the Mediterranean in May ahead of the eight-month voyage that will cross through the South China Sea.
Commodore Steve Moorhouse said the carrier is “a hugely powerful statement”.
He added: “It shows that we are a global navy and wanting to be back out there.
“The aim for us is that this deployment will be part of a more persistent presence for the United Kingdom in that region.”
Britain was the main battlefield ally of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and, alongside France, the principal military power in the European Union.
But its 2016 vote to leave the EU had raised questions about its global role.
Partly in response to those concerns, London announced its biggest military spending increase since the Cold War late last year and has been touting the clout of the carrier, built at a cost of more than 3 billion pounds ($4.26 billion).
HMS Queen Elizabeth will exercise with naval vessels from the United States, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, along the route.
Britain, like China, now has two aircraft carriers, both countries dwarfed by the United States’ 11.
The new 65,000-tonne vessel carries eight British F-35Bs and 10 US F-35s as well as 250 US marines as part of its 1,700-strong crew.
It will lead two destroyers, two frigates, a submarine and two support ships on its journey of 26,000 nautical miles, joined by a US destroyer and a frigate from the Dutch navy.
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Asked about British efforts to step up influence in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rising power – a strategy also followed by the European Union and supported by NATO – Moorhouse said: “We want to uphold international norms … our presence out there is absolutely key.”
China claims 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it.
The United States has long opposed China’s expansive territorial claims there, sending warships regularly through the waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation. About $3 trillion worth of trade passes through it each year.
In the Mediterranean, the British carrier group is part of NATO’s biggest drills of the year, Steadfast Defender, that includes a maritime live exercise with around 5,000 forces and 18 ships.