South China Sea: UK could send aircraft carrier to back Australian vessels


The 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest warship to be built in Britain. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Australia and the UK are discussing plans for the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to be sent to the Pacific amid tensions over China’s militarisation in the South China Sea.

The Australian defence minister, Marise Payne, and the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, have discussed joint naval operations in the Pacific region with the UK defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, during their visit this week.

In an effort to highlight the defence ties, Williamson and Payne visited BAe Systems shipyards on the Clyde in Glasgow to inspect new Type 26 frigates of the kind Australia bought last month in a £20bn ($36bn) deal, and the UK nuclear submarine base at Faslane.

Inside HMS Queen Elizabeth – in pictures
At a joint news conference in Edinburgh on Friday, which included the UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, Bishop said there had a been a distinct shift in “great power relations” that had fuelled an unprecedented level of global volatility.

No one mentioned China’s appropriation and militarisation of islands claimed by other south-east Asian countries – it has built airbases and installed missile systems close to its neighbours and increased its control of regional sea lanes.

Bishop referred instead to the challenges to international “norms and conventions” in the Pacific region. Payne said there were clear threats to the “rules-based international order”.

The four ministers said these threats justified greater defence and security cooperation between the UK and Australia, supported by an increase in British diplomatic outposts in south-Pacific countries such as Tonga and Vanuatu.

“At such a critical juncture in world affairs, we feel it is vital for like-minded nations to join together to promote peace and stability,” Bishop said. “We couldn’t be more delighted that the UK will be taking an increasing role in the Indo-Pacific.”