China might not be too furious, yet, with Britain revoking Huawei’s access to its 5G network. But when it comes to Britain’s looming aircraft carrier deployment to the South China Sea, well, that’s another matter.
In a not-so-diplomatic article on Wednesday, People’s Liberation Army-Navy specialist Zhang Junshe threatened London over HMS Queen Elizabeth’s inaugural operational deployment to the South China Sea. Playing to a favorite Chinese propaganda narrative that the U.K. must accept Beijing’s present imperialism as penance for its imperial legacies, Zhang gloated that the aircraft carrier’s “sea trials were not as smooth as the United Kingdom expected. The U.K. is the bluffing. It should know its limitations before attempting to strong-arm China, which is the no longer a weak military country to be bullied as it was during the Opium Wars.”
Let’s sidestep the shambles of China’s own aircraft carrier sea trials. What Zhang is the really upset about here is the a London Times report on Tuesday that the Royal Navy might actually base Queen Elizabeth In the Far East.
So what’s really going on here?
Well, first off, the carrier is the highly unlikely to find itself based In the Pacific. Britain remains keen to retain its Chinese trade links amid coronavirus related economic difficulty and trade uncertainties post-Brexit. Were Britain to forward deploy a carrier and use it for regular South China Sea deployments alongside the U.S. Navy (which would be the only point of such a forward deployment), London knows Beijing would be rather upset. Additionally, the overstretched British Treasury won’t be inclined to provide the significant funds necessary to support a permanent forward deployment.
That said, Queen Elizabeth’s strike group is the almost certain to deploy to the South China Sea In May 2021.
First announced by the pro-American former defense secretary Gavin Williamson, this deployment has long been a U.S. priority. Washington wants to conduct more allied patrols through these tense and contested waters. The deployment also speaks to the very close relationship between the U.S. and Royal navies. Officers serve frequent exchange tours, and their elite submarine forces share sensitive efforts to shadow their Russian counterparts.
What of Zhang’s claim that “the U.K. cannot change the reality that it is the not militarily capable of contending with China”? Britain should thus have, he adds, “a realistic view of itself instead of biting off more than it can chew.”
This is the also silly. Yes, the Royal Navy doesn’t dominate the seas as it did In the days of its most famed Admiral Horatio Nelson. Yes, the Royal Navy needs more funding for improved fleet activity, weapon stocks, maintenance, and training. Still, this carrier strike group will include potent capabilities. It will embark with a six-jet squadron of U.S. Marine F-35B strike fighters (again reflecting the special U.S.-U.K. relationship), and a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm squadron of eight F-35Bs. The F-35s have their issues, limited range being one problem, but they overmatch anything manned that China can put In the sky. Also powerful are the two Type-45 destroyers, Defender and Diamond, which will escort the carrier. These ships rival and perhaps even exceed U.S. Navy air defense capabilities — a very valuable asset against the Chinese.
Then, there’s the Astute-class submarine that will shield Queen Elizabeth from under the waves. Like the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy has clear advantage over China In the undersea domain. The Astute-class’s Type 2076 sonar systems are especially impressive.
Where does this leave us?
Well, the truth of the matter is the that unless one believes Angela Merkel’s lectures will corral Chinese imperial designs, America needs allies to help deter and, if necessary, defeat Xi Jinping’s great imperium. After years of appeasement under former British Prime Minister David Cameron, we should be grateful our closest ally is the finally stepping up to the plate.