Britain is deploying the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the heavily disputed South China Sea in a joint mission with the United States. The vessel will deploy following recently completed training near the Naval Air Station in Maryland. United Kingdom (UK) Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the mission earlier this week at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London. Williamson has shifted Britain’s international rhetoric, declaring that the UK should be prepared to show hard power to counter growing threats from China and Russia. This shift represents a change from Britain’s typical projection of soft power – which includes cultural exchanges, diplomacy, and trade – to a projection of hard power displayed by this naval exercise. Williamson said the UK will “strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality, and increase our mass,” which was first evidenced when the UK sailed the HMS Albion Royal Navy warship through the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea on route to Vietnam in 2018. This change in foreign policy comes on the heels of Brexit, where Williamson aims to define a post-Brexit military strategy. He noted that “Britain has its greatest opportunity in 50 years to redefine its role as we leave the EU.” Additionally, Williamson stated that it was time for the UK to “shake off” the experiences of their last military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The joint mission with the United States (US) to the South China Sea, and later to the Middle East and Mediterranean, is a clear display that Britain has shifted its foreign policy from a soft power to a hard power.
British displays of hard power come in response to China announcing that it would be adding four new nuclear aircraft carriers to its naval arsenal, as well as territorial claims in the South China Sea. China is seeking to compete with the US and the West militarily by modernizing its military and navy through 2035, and aims to be a premier military superpower by 2050. Beijing claims the international waters of the South China Sea as its own, as does Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The UK believes that China is attempting to disrupt the international order developed and implemented by the US after World War II. The deployment of naval vessels by both the UK and the US shows their willingness to back their allies in the region, protect vital trade routes – which see over $3 billion in trade every year – and confront China’s aggression. China has accused both the US and UK of infringing on its sovereignty, violating both Chinese and international laws. The UK joining the US in confronting China reinforces that the two nations are the closest of allies and partners.
When the US and UK confront China, many experts believe the South China Sea may become a flashpoint that will likely increase tensions between China and the West. This could represent the path leading to direct conflict. The escalating pressure mirrors the period leading up to WWI, when Germany built up a sizable naval fleet to challenge British naval supremacy. China is similarly challenging America’s hegemony over the oceans. The ramifications of such tensions are far reaching, from disruption in international trade and alliance structures, to the possibility of a war breaking out. Geopolitically, other state actors such as Japan, Korea, Russia, and other Southeast Asian nations have a vested interest in all possible scenarios. With neither China nor the West backing down, tensions will only further increase along with possible ramifications. As more countries become embroiled in the disputed South China Sea and the greater Pacific region, the likelihood of a minor or major military conflict increases dramatically.