Britain’s new aircraft carriers to test Beijing in South China Sea

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UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson commits ‘colossal’ carriers to embarking on freedom of navigation exercises in pointed remarks

Boris Johnson has committed the UK’s two brand new aircraft carriers to freedom of navigation exercises in the fiercely contested waters of the South China Sea.

In a pointed declaration aimed squarely at China, whose island-building and militarisation in the sea has unnerved western powers, the British foreign secretary said that when the ships came into service they would be sent to the Asia-Pacific region as one of their first assignments.

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“One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area,” Johnson said in Sydney on Thursday, “to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.”

He later reiterated the point in a speech – only to confuse listeners by adding in a Q&A: “We haven’t yet quite decided to do that … but they are coming.”

The South China Sea is one of the busiest commercial sea routes in the world, carrying $5tn worth of trade a year. China claims it enjoys exclusive control over a massive portion of the sea – within the so-called nine-dash line – based on ancient rights marked in 600-year-old mariners’ books.

In dispute with four neighbouring countries, China has claimed sovereignty over islands in international waters in the sea, and built up sandbars and atolls into usable land. Several key islands have been populated and militarised with airfields, weapons systems and ports.

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