When the British Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier strike group makes its first port call in Japan as part of a 28-week, 26,000 nautical mile (48,000 kilometer) deployment that begins next month, it will represent a sea change in thinking in London and a signal to other European nations with China on their minds as they eye closer ties with Tokyo.
The Queen Elizabeth carrier will lead a flotilla of Royal Navy ships — as well as a U.S. Navy destroyer, a frigate from the Netherlands and a squadron of U.S. Marine Corps F-35B fighter jets — taking the vessels through the flash point South and East China seas, while making stops in India, Singapore, Japan and South Korea, according to the British Ministry of Defence.
The port call will also come as Tokyo grapples with how best to confront Beijing over its growing assertiveness in the region.
Japan has welcomed the carrier’s visit, which the Defense Ministry said will coincide with joint military drills between the strike group and the Self-Defense Forces.
The Carrier Strike Group 2021 is a potent demonstration of the UK’s formidable naval and air power, and the physical embodiment of the UK’s ambitions on the global stage.
This is Global Britain in action 🌎🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/v2k51BuVMo
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) April 26, 2021
In a statement Tuesday, the ministry said the port call and joint exercises signaled not only a “new stage” in the long history of the two nations’ defense ties, but also that Britain was determined to work with Japan to maintain and bolster a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP).
Alexander Neill, an Asia-Pacific security analyst and consultant, said the strike group’s visit — the first by a British carrier since 2013 — will highlight the ability of U.S. and Japanese partners from beyond the Indo-Pacific region to serve as force multipliers for the alliance as Beijing continues to challenge international norms.
“When our Carrier Strike Group sets sail next month, it will be flying the flag for ‘Global Britain’ — projecting our influence, signaling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing the security challenges of today and tomorrow,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said in announcing the deployment Monday.
But while the visits are aimed at shoring up British security ties in East Asia and come amid soaring tensions in the region over China’s enforcement of a national security law in Hong Kong, its saber-rattling near Taiwan and naval assertiveness in the South and East China seas, the move will also serve as a reminder that stability in the Indo-Pacific region is crucial for economic growth.
“For some time now, the U.K. and other European countries have viewed the Indo-Pacific as the engine of global economic vibrancy, vital for Europe’s economic security,” Neill said. “However, more recently the U.K. and others worry about several regional flashpoints and the challenge China’s increasingly powerful military is posing.”
The possibility of those flash points erupting into broader conflicts has unnerved many, and the dispatch of the British Navy’s largest and most powerful vessel will send an unmistakable message to China “that coercive behaviors create self-isolation; collaborative behaviors are rewarded with trust,” Neill said.
When the Queen Elizabeth steams into the U.S. naval base in the port of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, it will also signal an implicit endorsement and boost for Japan’s FOIP strategy.
In Britain’s hotly anticipated review of its foreign policy priorities released last month, London had already deployed the term “open international order,” saying that shaping “the more interconnected, multipolar and contested environment … in the coming decade” is crucial.
The term was likely to have resonated with officials in Japan due to its similarity with the FOIP strategy, which was referenced four times in a joint statement released after a “two-plus-two” meeting between the countries’ foreign and defense ministers in February.
The carrier visit and the earlier de facto endorsement of the strategy come as European nations have only recently begun adopting the term “Indo-Pacific” in their defense and security strategies, emphasizing the importance of freedom of navigation, information and ideas, as well as unimpeded trade.
France, which has sent warships — including a nuclear-powered attack submarine — to patrol the South China Sea in recent months and has been keen to emphasize that it is a resident power in the Indo-Pacific, began using the term just three years ago. Britain, meanwhile, adopted “Indo-Pacific tilt” in its March defense and security review, while the U.S. and Australia began following Japan’s lead years after Japan adopted the term more than a decade ago under then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
All of these countries are likely to look to the Japanese strategy for at least some inspiration in further refining their policies in the region, further cementing it as the preeminent approach to the increasingly important Indo-Pacific.
“The geostrategic construct of a conjoined Indian and Pacific Ocean region, and the need for unhindered trade across it, certainly reinforces Japan’s FOIP vision,” said Neill.
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