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UK to send aircraft carrier full of F-35s to South China Sea for joint op with US

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) underway during exercise "Saxon Warrior 2017" on 5 August 2017. (Capt. Jim McCall/U.S. Navy)
February 12, 2019

The United Kingdom said this week that it will be sending an aircraft carrier and F-35s to the South China Sea.

In a speech on Monday, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth will deploy to the South China Sea in a joint operation with the U.S., which will also consist of British and U.S. F-35 fighter jets, CNBC News reported.

“We are seeking to use our global capabilities to strengthen our global presence,” Williamson said.

“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,” he added.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth is the U.K.’s only active aircraft carrier, having a cost of $3.9 billion.

Williamson did not confirm a date for the mission. However, the U.K has been ramping up for an increased presence in the western Pacific for months.

In August 2018, the Royal Navy’s HMS Albion conducted the nation’s first Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. A few months later, Williamson said the U.K. would be building a military base in the western Pacific region, the South China Morning Post had reported.

The announcement comes just days after the U.S. Navy conducted a FONOP in the South China Sea with carriers USS Spruance and USS Preble. It is the second of its kind the U.S. has carried out this year.

China called the encounter – and the previous one in January – a “provocation” from the U.S.

“The relevant actions of the U.S. warships violated Chinese sovereignty, and undermined peace, security and order in the relevant sea areas,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “The Chinese side expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition.”

“China has indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea, including the Second Thomas Shoal, Mischief Reef and the adjacent waters,” Hua added.

Although the South China Sea is considered international waters, China claims nearly all of the waters and has militarized the islands within it.

In January, China deployed its DF-26 ballistic missile, coined the “carrier killer” for its ability to target medium and large ships at a range of 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers – which would be anywhere in the South China Sea.

Just two weeks ago, China conducted a live fire test of two DF-26 missiles, an act some saw as a warning to the U.S.

It’s unclear if the U.K. will draw the same ire from China with its presence in the South China Sea.