David Reid, cnbc.com
Britain will send its flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea.
The joint mission with U.S. forces is being described as a display of “lethality.”
The United Kingdom will deploy its new aircraft carrier, loaded with two squadrons of F-35 aircraft into the politically-fraught South China Sea.
British Defense Minister Gavin Williamson confirmed in a speech Monday morning that the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth will sail into waters that are the subject of dispute between China and other nations.
At an address given to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, Williamson said Britain was the second largest investor in the region and it must display “hard power” and “lethality” to help protect interests.
The £3 billion ($3.9 billion) carrier’s outing will also sail into the Middle East and Mediterranean and will be officially a mixed U.K./U.S. deployment.
“Significantly British and American F-35s will be embedded in the carrier’s air wing. Enhancing the reach and lethality of our forces (and) reinforcing the fact that United States remains the very closest of partners,” Williamson said.
The U.K. defense minister did not confirm exact dates for the mission.
China has laid claim to almost all of the strategic South China Sea which is viewed as important for shipping lanes and potential resources.
On Sunday, United States destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble sailed close to the Spratly Islands, territory disputed by China and the Philippines.
China claimed Monday that the ships entered without official permission but a spokesman for the US Navy’s 7th Fleet told CNN that the operation was to “challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.”
China is in the process of developing its own aircraft carrier capability, with currently only one considered combat-ready.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) the country could have as many as 6 carriers by the 2030s.