British's aircraft carrier joins NATO in South China Sea, challenging China

Britain’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth has begun its first operational deployment in a voyage that will cross through the South China Sea. Commodore Steve Moorhouse, commander of the carrier group, said Britain’s presence is key in the region amid China’s rising power.
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F-35B Lightning II aircrafts are seen on the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier offshore Portugal, May 27, 2021. Picture taken through the window. REUTERS/Bart Biesemans
F-35B Lightning II aircrafts are seen on the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier offshore Portugal, May 27, 2021. Picture taken through the window. REUTERS/Bart Biesemans

HMS Queen Elizabeth took part in NATO exercises in the Mediterranean this week, ahead of the eight-month voyage that will cross through the South China Sea in a signal to Beijing that sea lanes must remain open, according to Reuters.

The UK's new $4.2 billion aircraft carrier is underway on its maiden voyage, an eight-month tour that will cross through the South China Sea. And in doing so, send a clear signal to Beijing.

F-35B Lightning II aircrafts are seen on the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier offshore Portugal, May 27, 2021. Picture taken through the window. REUTERS/Bart Biesemans
F-35B Lightning II aircrafts are seen on the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier offshore Portugal, May 27, 2021. Picture taken through the window. REUTERS/Bart Biesemans

Fighter jets took off from the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth this week in the Mediterranean, as part of NATO exercises. Watching the drills was NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. "It sends a message of NATO's resolve and our capability and willingness to defend all allies against any threat. And it also sends a message of how NATO allies can operate together."

China claims 90% of the South China Sea, although several regional countries contest the boundaries and the U.S. has regularly sent warships through the area.

Britain was the main battlefield ally of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan and, alongside France, the principal military power in the European Union. But its 2016 vote to leave the EU raised questions about its global role.

London announced its biggest military spending increase since the Cold War late last year, partly in response to those concerns.

 NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks on board the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier offshore Portugal, May 27, 2021. REUTERS/Bart Biesemans
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks on board the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier offshore Portugal, May 27, 2021. REUTERS/Bart Biesemans

Tensions and challenges rising on the South China Sea

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% 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. "It sends a message of NATO's resolve," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said onboard the aircraft carrier. "We face global threats and challenges, including the shifting balance of power with the rise of China," he said, adding that although China had the world's biggest navy, it was not considered an adversary by NATO.

EU blames China for endangering peace in South China Sea

The European Union called out China for endangering peace in the South China Sea and urged all parties to abide by a 2016 tribunal ruling which rejected most of China’s claim to sovereignty in the sea, but which Beijing has rejected.

 F-35B Lightning II aircrafts are seen on the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier offshore Portugal, May 27, 2021. Picture taken through the window. REUTERS/Bart Biesemans
F-35B Lightning II aircrafts are seen on the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier offshore Portugal, May 27, 2021. Picture taken through the window. REUTERS/Bart Biesemans

The EU released a new policy aimed at stepping up its influence in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rising power. "Tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region," a EU spokesperson said in a statement. EU reiterated its strong opposition to "unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and international rules-based order".

It urged all parties to resolve disputes peacefully in accordance with international law, and highlighted a 2016 international arbitration that had ruled in favor of the Philippines while invalidating most of China's claims in the South China Sea.

The Philippines protested to China over its failure to withdraw what it called as “threatening” boats believed to be manned by maritime militia around the disputed Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month said Washington “stands by its ally, the Philippines,” in the face of China’s massing maritime militia at Whitsun Reef.

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