HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest vessel ever built for Britain’s Royal Navy, weighing in at 65,000 tonnes. It is not expected to fully enter service until next year, but Tokyo is “very keen” that its first deployment include a visit to a Japanese port, according to an official who was not authorised to speak publicly on the matter.
Gavin Williamson, the UK’s defence secretary, announced in February that the new warship would be sent to the Pacific region in 2021. He made no mention of where it would dock, however.
The two countries have undertaken a number of joint security and defence initiatives in recent years, and a port call by the British aircraft carrier on its maiden voyage would serve to underline this enhanced partnership to Japan’s regional rivals, the source in Tokyo said.
Such a visit would also be in line with recent defence exchanges, such as the deployment of Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters for joint exercises in December 2016, four visits by Royal Navy warships in the last 18 months, and the pair’s first joint military exercise on Japanese soil in October last year, according to Garren Mulloy, associate professor of international relations at Japan’s Daito Bunka University.
“Britain’s Ministry of Defence clearly wants to do these deployments of land, sea and air units to the region as they want to make their presence felt in [the] Asia-Pacific,” he said.
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Just last month, a Royal Navy frigate working alongside units from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Forces found evidence of a North Korean ship carrying out an illegal ship-to-ship transfer of fuel in the East China Sea, in contravention of UN sanctions.
Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Meiji University, said Tokyo was “hedging its security bets” and looking to develop defence ties with other nations in the face of an increasingly inward-looking United States and more militarily assertive China.
“Japan is trying to get like-minded countries to confirm their security relationships with Tokyo in order to ensure stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said. “They have been working very hard on reinforcing alliances with Australia and India, but they are also trying to reach out further afield and a nation with an aircraft carrier would be a valuable ally.”
Yet domestic political and economic concerns surrounding Britain’s tumultuous exit from the European Union may prevent London from taking any action that Beijing finds provocative such as carrying out US-style “freedom of navigation” exercises, according to Mulloy, of Daito Bunka University.
“Japan may want the Royal Navy to put on a show of force when it comes to the islands in the South China Sea, for example, but the last thing that London wants to do as it struggles with Brexit is to upset Beijing and damage its economic and business links, ” he said
“If HMS Queen Elizabeth comes to the Pacific, it won’t do anything approaching what US warships have done in the South China Sea and challenge the 12-mile limit [of territorial sovereignty] around those islands. I expect it will carry out ‘innocent passage’ beyond the 12-mile limit.
“But I also think that will please Japan as there is great symbolism attached to an aircraft carrier of a member of the UN Security Council and a G7 member state operating in the South China Sea and travelling on to Japan to reinforce the strategic partnership.”
Neither country’s defence ministry responded to requests for comment on the British aircraft carrier’s future deployment.
However, in a joint statement issued by Japan’s foreign ministry after UK Prime Minister Theresa May met her Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in London in January, the two sides stated that they would “strengthen maritime security cooperation” and “remain concerned over the situation in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and strongly opposed to any unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo and increase tensions including the militarisation of disputed maritime features”.