The South China Sea has been a hotbed of naval activity this week, with a British aircraft carrier strike group, an American surface action group, and forces from China’s People’s Liberation Army all staging exercises in the contested waterway.
The British Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth has been the center of attention, with state-run Chinese media outlets and diplomats accusing Britain of stirring up trouble in the disputed waters at the behest of the United States.
In a statement provided to CNN, a spokesperson from Britain’s Ministry of Defense said the carrier strike group was lawfully navigating the South China Sea, “just as one third of global shipping does on an annual basis.” The statement added the strike group was taking the most direct route through international waters to conduct exercises with allies and partners in the Philippine Sea.
“As the Defense Secretary said to United Kingdom Parliament back in April, we are not going to go to the other side of the world to be provocative. We will be confident, but not confrontational,” said the spokesperson’s statement.
On Friday, a series of photos posted on the United States Navy’s website showed US Marine Corps jets involved in operations off the British carrier, with the dateline of the South China Sea.
“A free and open Indo-Pacific region that is peaceful and stable is vital to ensuring greater prosperity for the region and the world,” the photo captions said.
Largest deployment in a generation
Ten US F-35 warplanes are deployed aboard the British carrier, the byproduct of an agreement between Washington and London to harmonize and integrate the operation of their aircraft carrier fleets. A US Navy destroyer and Dutch frigate are also part of the strike group.
In a previous statement, Britain’s Ministry of Defense described the strike group as the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave the UK in a generation. The group sailed from Britain in May and is expected to go as far as South Korea before heading back home in the fall.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory. Beginning in 2014, it has worked to turn numerous obscure reefs and sandbars throughout the waterway into man-made artificial islands heavily fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems, prompting outcry from other governments with competing claims.
The arrival of the strike group has prompted anger in China. Writing in Chinese state media, Wu Shicun, president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, described the UK carrier deployment as an attempt to “relive the glory days of the British Empire.”
“The latest voyage of British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth is not simply what London calls a crossing of South China Sea waters in accordance with international law, but is a carefully planned trick serving multiple purposes,” read an article from Wu, posted on the PLA’s English-language website.
“It’s no secret that the UK has been acting in complicity with the US on the South China Sea issue, closely following its lead and dancing to its tune,” Wu wrote.
“The South China Sea was a symbol of Britain’s glorious colonial past, through which the old-time empire that prided itself on its worldwide colonies shipped back the fortune and treasures it plundered in Asia,” added Wu.
But US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, in a speech in Singapore on Tuesday, called the UK deployment “historic,” and pushed back against what he described as China’s illegitimate claims to the waterway.
Austin said the UK carrier’s deployment demonstrated the strength of Britain’s partnerships both with Washington, and other nations across the region.
“I’m especially encouraged to see our friends building stronger security ties with one another, further reinforcing the array of partnerships that keeps aggression at bay,” he said.
US destroyer transits Taiwan Strait
As the carrier strike group was moving through the South China Sea, a US Navy surface action group was for the first time bringing together two classes of US warships in the region.
A US 7th Fleet press release said the combination of the littoral combat ship USS Tulsa and the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd marked the first time ships of those classes have ever combined to form a surface action group.
“These types of SAG operations are exceptional opportunities to harness the combined lethality of the fleet,” Capt. Chase Sargeant, a task force commander, said in the release.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, another US guided-missile destroyer, the USS Benfold, transited the Taiwan Strait between the democratically controlled island of Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and near the northern entrance to the South China Sea.
It was the seventh such transit of the Taiwan Strait by a US warship in 2021.
China has also been flexing its military muscles around the region this week with multiple exercises, according to state-run media outlets.
Two areas of the northern part of the South China Sea were placed under restricted access this week for the exercises, according to an article in the state-run tabloid Global Times
“While the Chinese military drills are not likely directly related to the UK warships, they show that the PLA is at a high combat readiness,” the report said.