British aircraft carrier ignores Chinese warnings and enters South China Sea

Aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and her Carrier Strike Group have entered the South China Sea, a region largely claimed by China.

The aircraft carrier and her escorts were recently in Singapore before entering the South China Sea.

China claims almost all of the 1.3 million-square-mile South China Sea as its sovereign territory, and it has denounced the presence of foreign warships there as the root of tensions in the region.

China say that its claim to the sea is based both on the Law of the Sea Convention and its so-called ‘nine-dash’ line. This line extends for 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland, encompassing over half of the sea. However in an historic decision in 2016, the international tribunal in The Hague ruled against part of China’s claims to the sea. The US, UK and Australia routinely conduct freedom of navigation operations (or FONOPs) to challenge what Washington calls “attempts by coastal states to unlawfully restrict access to the seas”.

Territorial claims in the South China Sea

Both the US and UK have angered China previously by carrying out FONOPs in the South China Sea to assert rights to freedom of navigation.

Chinese defence spokesman Tan Kefei was quoted in the South China Morning Posas saying:

“The Chinese side believes that the South China Sea should not become a sea of great power rivalry dominated by weapons and warships. The real source of militarisation in the South China Sea comes from countries outside this region sending their warships thousands of kilometres from home to flex muscles. The Chinese military will take necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interest as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

HMS Queen Elizabeth sailing with her Carrier Strike Group.

Back at the start of the month, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told MPs that “It’s absolutely right we exercise and defend the rights, and we do so from the Ukrainian territorial sea to the South China Sea” after discussions on a British warship sailing through Ukrainian territory claimed by Russia.

Yesterday, ships from the UK’s Carrier Strike Group performed an exercise with the Republic of Singapore Navy.

According to the Ministry of Defence,:

“The exercise, to advance interoperability and coordination between the two navies, builds on the deep and long-standing defence partnership between the UK and Singapore. It was also the first time that ships from the Royal Navy’s 5th generation Carrier Strike Group exercised alongside the RSN.”

Eight ships were involved in yesterday’s exercise say the MoD:

  • HMS Queen Elizabeth, aircraft carrier
  • HMS Kent, Type 23 anti-submarine frigate
  • HNLMS Evertsen, De Zeven Provicien-class frigate (Royal Netherlands Navy)
  • USS The Sullivans, Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (US Navy)
  • RFA Tidespring, Fast Fleet Tanker
  • RSS Intrepid Formidable-class frigate (Republic of Singapore Navy)
  • RSS Unity Independence-class littoral mission vessel (Republic of Singapore Navy)
  • RSS Resolution Endurance-class landing ship tank (Republic of Singapore Navy)

What happened last time a British vessel sailed through the South China Sea?

HMS Albion has previously sailed through the South China Sea.

In 2018, assault ship HMS Albion was challenged by a Chinese frigate and two helicopters during freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea. Local media report that both sides remained calm during the encounter and the Royal Navy assault ship continued on course despite protests from China.

What is the UK Carrier Strike Group doing?

HMS Queen Elizabeth is the deployed flag ship for Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21), a deployment that will see the ship and her escorts sail to the Asia-Pacific and back. The Carrier Strike Group includes ships from the United States Navy, the Dutch Navy, and Marines from the US Marine Corps as well as air assets from 617 Sqn, 820 NAS, 815 NAS and 845 NAS.

The Royal Navy say that the UK’s Carrier Strike Group will visit more than one fifth of the world’s nations. Led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, the task group will visit 40 nations including India, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore in a deployment covering 26,000 nautical miles.

“While in the Pacific, ships from the Carrier Strike Group will mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Powers Defence Agreement between Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the UK by taking part in Exercise Bersama Lima. Joining HMS Queen Elizabeth on her maiden deployment are destroyers HMS Diamond and Defender; frigates HMS Richmond and Kent; an Astute-class submarine in support below the waves; and Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ships RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Tidespring.

More than 30 aircraft will also embark across the task group including F-35 jets from 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, and the US Marine Corps’ VMFA-211; Wildcat helicopters from 815 Naval Air Squadron and Merlin helicopters from 820 and 845 Naval Air Squadrons. Royal Marines from 42 Commando will also deploy with the carrier. Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen and American Arleigh Burke destroyer USS The Sullivans are also part of the strike group.”

HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea with a mix of British and American jets.

Currently however, HMS Diamond isn’t with the group after suffering a defect. You can read more about that here.

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