Britain plans to sail two new aircraft carriers through contested Asian waters at a time of rising tensions between China and the US.
Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, said on Thursday that Britain was stepping up its commitment to the Asia-Pacific region following its dispatch of Typhoon aircraft to Japan and South Korea last year.
“One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area,” he said in Sydney.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to come into service in 2020 but HMS Prince of Wales is not due until 2023.
Mr Johnson said the aim was “to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital to world trade”.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said: “This kind of action is not helpful to the relationship between China and Great Britain. China will be very much displeased. This shows that Britain might be changing its quite favourable attitude based on highlighting economic relations”.
China’s foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment.
China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea, a vital trade route and a lucrative fishing area. This has caused tensions with Asian neighbours and Washington, which has vowed to uphold the rule of law and freedom of navigation.
Euan Graham, an analyst at the Lowy Institute think-tank, said Mr Johnson’s commitment to Asian waters was unlikely to take effect until the early 2020s when the carriers would be ready to sail to the region.
“There will be a gap before this takes place,” he said.
Mr Johnson made his comments following a joint meeting between British and Australian foreign and defence ministers, who discussed closer defence and trade co-operation as the UK prepares to leave the EU.
The foreign secretary told The Australian newspaper that legal certainty in the South China Sea was important and that Britain had a role to play in the region that would be welcomed by many.
“People want the involvement of a country that sticks up for the rules-based international system, that is prepared to deploy its military in the area,” he added.
On Sunday a US spy plane had to take action to avoid a Chinese fighter jet over the East China Sea. Any British freedom of navigation operation would probably incur the wrath of Beijing, which is asserting its claims to the contested waters.
Additional reporting by Peggy Hollinger and Tom Hancock in Shanghai
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