British aircraft carrier's maiden launch a 'message to China' ahead of massive war games

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The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrives back at Portsmouth Naval Base in Hampshire. Picture date: Wednesday May 19, 2021.
Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (PA)

The maiden voyage of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will seek to show allies that post-Brexit Britain is ready to defend Western interests and eager to see China respect international rules, the vessel's commander has said.

Commodore Steve Moorhouse, the ship's commanding officer and captain, said the carrier's forthcoming voyage was "a hugely powerful statement".

On Friday the ship took part in Nato exercises in the Mediterranean ahead of the journey that will cross through the South China Sea in a signal to Beijing that sea lanes must remain open.

A Royal Navy Merlin helicopter lands on to HMS Queen Elizabeth at HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, ahead of the ship's maiden deployment to lead the UK Carrier Strike Group on a 28-week operational deployment travelling over 26,000 nautical miles from the Mediterranean to the Philippine Sea. Picture date: Saturday May 22, 2021. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
A Royal Navy Merlin helicopter lands on to HMS Queen Elizabeth ahead of the ship's maiden deployment to lead the UK Carrier Strike Group on a 28-week operational deployment travelling over 26,000 nautical miles from the Mediterranean to the Philippine Sea (Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)

"It shows that we are a global navy and wanting to be back out there," Moorhouse said. Referring to the Indo-Pacific that includes India and Australia he added: "The aim for us is that this deployment will be part of a more persistent presence for the United Kingdom in that region."

Asked about UK efforts to step up influence in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China's rising power – a strategy also followed by the EU and supported by Nato – Moorhouse said: "We want to uphold international norms... our presence out there is absolutely key."

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II signs the visitors' book as is greeted by Commanding Officer Captain Angus Essenhigh (C) and Commodore Stephen Moorhouse, Commander UK Carrier Strike Group, check their watches during her visit to the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth, southern England on May 22, 2021, ahead of its maiden operational deployment to the Philippine Sea. - The aircraft carrier will embark on her first operational deployment on May 23, leading the UK Carrier Strike Group in engagements with 40 nations including India, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore. (Photo by Steve Parsons / POOL / AFP) (Photo by STEVE PARSONS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
The Queen met with Commanding Officer Captain Angus Essenhigh and Commodore Stephen Moorhouse, Commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group, ahead of HMS Queen Elizabeth's maiden voyage. (AFP)

In the Mediterranean, the British carrier group is part of one of Nato's biggest drills of the year, Steadfast Defender, that includes a maritime live exercise with around 5,000 forces and 18 ships.

"It sends a message of Nato's resolve," Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said onboard the aircraft carrier.

"We face global threats and challenges, including the shifting balance of power with the rise of China," he said, adding that although China had the world's biggest navy, it was not considered an adversary by NATO.

Watch: HMS Queen Elizabeth departs HMNB Portsmouth ahead of its maiden operation

Prior to its departure, the Queen visited the HMS Queen Elizabeth on Saturday.

Arriving by helicopter, the 95-year-old monarch was greeted by the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Angus Essenhigh, and Commodore Moorhouse.

While aboard, she was given a briefing on the upcoming deployment and had a chance to chat with some of the 1,700 personnel, including Royal Navy sailors, Royal Air Force airmen and women, Royal Marines and 250 United States personnel. 

The queen wore a scarab brooch that had been a gift from her late husband, Prince Philip, a former high-ranking naval officer who died last month at age 99.

PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND - MAY 22: A pair of F-35B Lightning II jets on the flight deck during Queen Elizabeth II's visit to HMS Queen Elizabeth at HM Naval Base ahead of the ship's maiden deployment on May 22, 2021 in Portsmouth, England. The visit comes as HMS Queen Elizabeth prepares to lead the UK Carrier Strike Group on a 28-week operational deployment travelling over 26,000 nautical miles from the Mediterranean to the Philippine Sea. (Photo by Steve Parsons - WPA Pool / Getty Images)
A pair of F-35B Lightning II jets on the flight deck during the Queen's visit to HMS Queen Elizabeth last week (Getty Images)

Boris Johnson also visited the ship and met with the crew ahead of its voyage around the world.

“One of the things we’ll be doing clearly is showing to our friends in China that we believe in the international law of the sea and, in a confident but not a confrontational way, we will be vindicating that point,” Johnson said last Friday.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks with members of the crew during a visit to HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in Portsmouth southwest England prior to its departure for Asia in its first operational deployment on May 21, 2021. (Photo by Leon Neal / POOL / AFP) (Photo by LEON NEAL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson met with members of the crew during a visit to HMS Queen Elizabeth on 21 May, prior to its departure for Asia in its first operational deployment. (AFP)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson sits in the cockpit of an Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II during a visit aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth ahead of its first operational deployment to the Far East. Picture date: Friday May 21, 2021. (Photo by Leon Neal/PA Images via Getty Images)
The PM sat in the cockpit of an Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II during his visit. (PA Images via Getty Images)

China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it.

The US has long opposed China's expansive territorial claims there, sending warships regularly through the waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation. About $3tn worth of trade passes through it each year.

The UK, like China, now has two aircraft carriers, both countries dwarfed by the US's 11. The new 65,000-tonne vessel carries eight British F-35Bs and 10 US F-35s as well as 250 US marines as part of its 1,700-strong crew.

It will lead two destroyers, two frigates, a submarine and two support ships on its journey of 26,000 nautical miles, joined by a US destroyer and a frigate from the Dutch navy.

The UK was the main battlefield ally of the US Iraq and Afghanistan and, alongside France, the principal military power in the EU. 

HMS Queen Elizabeth at HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, ahead of the ship's maiden deployment to lead the UK Carrier Strike Group on a 28-week operational deployment travelling over 26,000 nautical miles from the Mediterranean to the Philippine Sea. Picture date: Saturday May 22, 2021. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
The £3bn ship has eight RAF F35B stealth fighter jets on board. (PA Images via Getty Images)

But the decision of the UK to leave the EU after the Brexit vote raised questions about its global role.

Partly in response to those concerns, London announced its biggest military spending increase since the Cold War late last year and has been touting the clout of the carrier, built at a cost of more than £3bn.

HMS Queen Elizabeth will exercise with naval vessels from the US, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea along the route, Moorhouse said.

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