Britain’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is on its way to Asia. The UK government sees this as a demonstration of “Global Britain” in action. Sceptics, in Britain and the wider world, are less complimentary. Britain’s new venture east of Suez has been portrayed as an exercise in imperial nostalgia that is unlikely to impress modern China — which still nurtures bitter memories of the “century of humiliation” that began with the arrival of British gunboats in 1839. These days, the Chinese navy is considerably larger than that of the UK, and most others in the world.
It is important to understand, however, that Britain is not the only European power that is sending naval vessels to the Pacific. The French have also made naval deployments. A Dutch ship is part of the British carrier group. And a German frigate is also due to visit the region later this year.
By far the most important western naval power in the Pacific remains the US. Indeed the British carrier will also carry US planes and marines on board, in a display of allied unity — as well as of the paucity of Britain’s own resources.
European deployments are important in demonstrating that America is not alone in pushing back against China’s efforts to dominate the western Pacific. The US frequently sails ships through areas where China is making military threats such as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing portrays these US naval deployments as reflecting nothing more than great-power rivalry — with Washington reflexively trying to hold down a rising rival. The US argues that, on the contrary, it is upholding a vital international principle — freedom of navigation. This is particularly important since China’s claim to sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea has been rejected by an international tribunal.
European naval exercises in the Pacific will not alter the military balance in the region. But that is not the intention. Along with deployments by the Australian and Japanese navies, they underline the fact that there is a global group of democratic powers that do not accept China’s ambitions or methods in the Pacific.
Such deployments to Asia from third countries are also needed because the US can no longer do the job alone. The US navy is sorely overstretched, patrolling a vast region where its ships are now outnumbered by those of the Chinese navy.
There is however a danger that the way the UK and some of its European peers have set up their missions could send a mixed message. The British aircraft carrier group will not take the natural route through the Taiwan Strait when it sails from the South China Sea to Japan. Sending off the HMS Queen Elizabeth recently, UK prime minister Boris Johnson even appeared to apologise to Beijing, speaking about “our friends in China” and saying that Britain did “not want to antagonise anybody”. Germany added a Shanghai port visit to the schedule of its frigate prior to its transit through the South China Sea — a move that also looks like an effort to have it both ways.
The risk is that Beijing may conclude the real lesson to be drawn from such carefully calibrated deployments is that the UK and other European powers would actually stand aside — if China were ever to attempt a blockade of Taiwan.
In reality, neither Washington, Beijing, Taipei or London could be sure how such an unprecedented international crisis would unfold. It would be wise if all parties ensure that we never find out.