China Warns the U.K. as the Most Powerful British Fleet Approaches
"Do not carry out improper acts." That was the warning sent by China to the U.K., whose largest carrier strike group led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, approaches the Pacific. The Carrier Strike Group 21 is the largest deployment of British air and naval forces since the Falklands War of 1982.
The British strike force will sail to Asia, particularly to the waters surrounding its former colonies, and then join the U.S. Seventh Fleet in freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea.
Its impending arrival seems to have made China uneasy.
China in a High State of Combat Readiness
Although China has not officially made a statement on the approaching British fleet, its mouthpiece has warned the U.K. to behave while in China’s backyard.
“The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA) is at a high state of combat readiness” wrote the Global Times, a news outlet considered as a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
According to the Global Times, the PLA will take advantage of the Carrier Strike Group’s presence to gather as much information as possible about their technologies, strategies, and interoperability with their allies. The PLA will use it “as a chance for practice and for studying the U.K.'s latest warships up close,” wrote the Global Times.
The Global Times also quoted the Chinese ambassador in London: “The threat to freedom of navigation could only come from the one who deploys a carrier strike group to the South China Sea half a world away and flexes its naval muscles to heighten the military tension in that region.”
How Powerful is the HMS Queen Elizabeth?
It is not the armaments on the supercarrier itself that poses a threat to potential enemies, but the strike group and warplanes that always accompany it wherever it goes.
Aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth is the most reputed squadron in the British military. Nicknamed the “Dambusters”, the 617 Squadron RAF pilot one of the most advanced jet fighters in the world—The F-35 Stealth Fighters.
In June, the HMS Queen Elizabeth carried out operational sorties for the first time. It attacked positions in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, in support of the U.K.’s Operation Shader and U.S. Operation Inherent Resolve. Eight of the F-35Bs on the carrier are from the British Royal Air Force 617 Squadron, while another 10 are from the U.S. Marines Corps’ Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211, the “Wake Island Avengers.” It is the first time since World War II that the U.S. has used a foreign aircraft carrier to launch sorties.
On top of its squadron of F-35s, the HMS Queen Elizabeth is supported by a sizable strike group composed of destroyers, submarines, and cruisers, among other things. They are also equipped with anti-missile defense systems, which work with satellites so that carrier-sinking missiles will not penetrate the strike group.
China’s Unsinkable Naval Assets
The U.K.’s Carrier Strike Group 21 may be powerful, but China has several assets in the West Philippine Sea that are considerably more powerful than any warship ever built: artificial islands.
Compared to aircraft carriers, China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea are unsinkable. They can also host more aircraft, fuel, supplies, and firepower.
Nevertheless, the U.K., the U.S., and the rest of their allies in Asia will conduct naval exercises that will improve interoperability among their navies, and cancel China’s Nine-Dash Line claims. Regular FONOPS in the South China Sea delegitimizes China’s unilateral claim of ownership over the entirety of the West Philippine Sea.