Last month the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier left Portsmouth for the Pacific, accompanied by a flotilla comprising up to 36 US F-35 fighter jets, numerous escort vessels, and a strike group company of some 1,600 personnel. Utterly wasteful and potentially dangerous, it’s the largest British naval and air taskforce since the Falklands war. Touted by the government as a way to ‘make global Great Britain a reality’, it’s indicative of the new ‘attack’ mentality of the Johnson government.
Whatever the political spin, the fact is, if you send a lot of military hardware out there, it is going to be seen as provocative and is likely to be used. Neither of those is a very good idea. How has it done so far?
Part of the carrier strike force has already caused an international incident. Last week the British destroyer HMS Defender peeled off from the group and sailed into disputed waters in the Black Sea near the Crimea. It asserted that it was keeping open international shipping lanes – in waters claimed by Russia.
UK government sources have confirmed that the ship’s action was deliberate, saying that ‘it was not there to pick a fight but to make a point’. You have to ask: why is a British destroyer making a point in the Black Sea? And how many more ‘points’ is the flotilla going to make on its way to the South China Sea where presumably it will be making further points to China? As the BBC website observed, as dramatic as the Black Sea events appear, ‘this could end up being just a dress rehearsal for a bigger test to come…. There, together with other nations, it will be challenging China’s claims to a vast contested area of sea bordering several countries.’
But that’s not all the flotilla has been up to. Last week British and American F-35 fighters flew anti-ISIS strike missions from the aircraft carrier – ‘a first for the U.K. in a decade’, said the RAF, referring to the 2011 Libya campaign. ‘It sends a wider message’, they said, as it demonstrates ‘the speed and agility with which a U.K.-led Carrier Strike Group can inject fifth generation combat power into any operation, anywhere in the world.’
Of course the strike group’s main strategic aim is to reinforce Britain’s ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’, so following activities in the Middle East it’s on course for exercises with the navies of India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. This mirrors the US’s ‘Quad’ approach to building up regional forces against China.
It’s not only peace activists who are worried about such apparently provocative actions – senior military figures are also raising concerns. Lord Houghton of Richmond, who was chief of defence staff between 2014 and 2016, said it would be “foolish to turn China into an enemy”. Quite so.
Serious opposition needs to be raised, not only by the movements but within Parliament too. Johnson has already started a new nuclear arms race with his illegal increase in the nuclear arsenal; the way he’s going now, military confrontation cannot be discounted, and that would be exceptionally dangerous. And it would be a block to resolving the central problems that the global community needs to address collectively, notably the pandemic and the climate crisis.
As we said in a recent letter to the Prime Minister opposing the flotilla’s voyage, now is not a time for gunboat diplomacy; it’s time to explore new ways of cooperation instead of glorifying imperial myths. We haven’t yet had a reply.