The deployment of the aircraft carrier HMS Elizabeth to the South China Sea is a reckless ramping up of tensions, argues Lindsey German
A new phase in Britain’s policy of gunboat diplomacy opened this week as the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth entered the South China Sea to be met by protests from the Chinese government. The carrier, accompanied by the massive Carrier Strike Group, which has been making its maiden voyage culminating in a deliberately staged assertion of its right to freedom of navigation of the seas around China.
The carrier is escorted by six Royal Navy ships, a Royal Navy submarine, a US Navy destroyer, and a Dutch frigate. It is carrying 8 F35 jets, four maritime attack helicopters, anti-submarine and airborne early warning helicopters. The array of military hardware is supplemented by over 100 cases of Covid-19 on board the ship, as reported by the BBC last week. This is not a force for peace, but a show of strength designed to further confront China in the new cold war which is under way with the US and its allies.
More than 50 years after Labour prime minister Harold Wilson decided to withdraw British troops east of Suez, in recognition that Britain no longer had an empire on which the sun never set, Boris Johnson is trying to recreate a British presence in East Asia, in alliance with the US and other Western allies.
The South China Sea has become an increasingly fraught centre of tension and potential conflict as these countries determine to stage freedom of navigation operations in areas close to the Chinese mainland. There are also disputes over two sets of territory, the Paracel Archipelago and the Spratly Islands, which are contested by other countries in the region.
China claims sovereignty in the seas surrounding it as territorial waters – as do many other countries in procedures recognised under international law.
Its Defence spokesman Tan Kefei said on Tuesday: ‘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.’
It is hard to disagree with that sentiment. The claims by Britain that it is protecting the interests of neighbouring countries only deflects from the fact that the ships are engaged in military manoeuvres and exercises in an area very far distant from its own territory. There is no justification for this in terms of defence of Britain, rather it is symptomatic of the aggressive nature of this maiden voyage of the carrier.
Earlier in its voyage one of the ships from the Carrier Strike Group entered waters controlled by Russia in what was shown to be a deliberate provocation. Part of the intention is to test the responses of Russia and China when these actions take place. This is in itself extremely dangerous, given the existing tensions between the various powers. Any one incident could trigger much more serious confrontations which could lead to a disastrous war.
One can only imagine the hostility from government and media if China sent warships close to the US Pacific coast, or if Russia sailed close to British waters. Yet Boris Johnson’s government claims that it has the right to behave with impunity anywhere in the world. Part of his strategy to promote ‘Global Britain’ is to seek trade deals across the world at the same time as banging the drum for British military power. This comes at tremendous cost – more than £3bn for the construction of HMS Queen Elizabeth alone and millions more spent on this flag waving militarised exercise. But the financial cost may be little compared to the growing threat to peace in the region.
We can expect little from Keir Starmer’s Labour in terms of opposition to this militarism – indeed his leadership has made clear its support for these policies. The dangers of the new imperialism are however growing – and we need to campaign against it.
Originally published in Stop the War.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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