By Wu Minwen
The British government decided in October 2020 to send a carrier strike group, led by its HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, to the South China Sea for the so-called “freedom of navigation”. The 48,000km voyage was called the longest and largest-scale deployment of Britain’s largest vessel fleet since the Falklands War, and the carrier stopped at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base on October 11.
As an old colonial and imperialist country where the sun used to never set, Britain has long-standing military and diplomatic culture. In March this year, the British government released the 111-page Global Britain in a Competitive Age – The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which comprehensively described the role that the UK expects itself to play on the world stage in the next decade and revealed its intention to create an image of “Global Britain” after Brexit. But many pointed out the gap between its ambition and ability.
A closer look at the fleet and the global voyage of the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group exposes plenty of signs of a declining empire. The British Royal Navy has only two aircraft carriers in service now, but as the HMS Prince of Wales had a water leak incident last year, the oceangoing mission falls on HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Carrier-borne aircraft represent the core combat force of aircraft carriers. HMS Queen Elizabeth is able to bear 40 fighter jets, but the British Royal Navy scraped only 18 F-35Bs, with only eight from the British Royal Air Force whereas the rest were sponsored by the US Marine Corps.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group followed the route through the Mediterranean Sea, Suez Canal, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean this time rather than by the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. This is partly to shorten the journey and save time and cost, but the fact that its destroyer HMS Defender approached Crimea via the Black Sea also indicated the old empire’s yearning for past glory. To contend with Russia for domination on the European continent, Britain and France fought and won the Crimean War (1853-1856) with Russia. With such a carefully planned and prepared long journey, how can the Johnson administration contain its urge to relive, even for a moment, that glorious period?
On June 23, the destroyer HMS Defender in the carrier strike group entered the Black Sea and intruded into 12 nautical miles of Crimea at one time. Russian fighter jets fired in its direction and drove it away. British foreign minister Dominic Raab explained that the Russian side was just having a shooting exercise on the sea and they happened to come across the Defender, but his remarks were soon belied by reporters coming along onboard the destroyer and by the video released by Russian Defense Ministry.
European countries have responded differently to Biden’s urge for NATO allies to join its “Indo-Pacific strategy”. This year, France assigned its Mistral-class amphibious assault ship to participate in the military exercise at the Bay of Bengal alongside the US, Japan, India and Australia, but French Chief of Defense Staff General Francois Lecointre made it clear that France would never put itself in the middle of the China-US confrontation. Germany only sent a small frigate to the Pacific Ocean just for appearance. Britain, which is no longer a member of the EU, dispatched the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group and formed the AUKUS with the US and Australia.
Although Britain wants to expand and consolidate its interests in the region through America’s “Indo-Pacific strategy”, the principle of cutting the pie remains the same even among allies – strength decides interests and position. The US provided carrier-borne aircraft for Britain’s carrier strike group in order to make Britain the vanguard of serving America’s strategy rather than the other way round.
Cementing the special relationship with the US is the strategy Britain has set for itself to realize its ambition to become a "global Britain" in the post-Brexit age. However, no matter what show the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group will put on in the coming days, the country's position as a footman was determined even before the group set sail.
Editor's Note: This article is originally published on the cyol.com, and is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn.