Hindustan Times, New Delhi

HMS Queen Elizabeth. The 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth, which can carry up to 40 aircraft, was commissioned in late 2017 but next year’s deployment will mark its maiden voyage in international waters.(Reuters)



The UK is sending its largest warship, aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, and its strike task group to the Indian Ocean early next year for its maiden voyage, with London describing the move as the country’s “most ambitious deployment for two decades”.

The deployment comes against the backdrop of growing interest in the Indo-Pacific in Europe amid concerns over China’s increased assertiveness, and the UK’s own concerns over Chinese actions in its former colony of Hong Kong, which London says have undermined the agreement on leaving the region unchanged until 2047.

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“Next year, HMS Queen Elizabeth will lead a British and allied task group on the UK’s most ambitious deployment for two decades, its route will encompass the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and East Asia,” a British high commission spokesperson said.

“It is a natural choice for the inaugural deployment of the carrier strike task group to include a visit to the Indian Ocean and East Asia. The deployment is a sign of the UK’s commitment to regional security,” the spokesperson added.

France, Germany and the Netherlands have unveiled their strategies for the Indo-Pacific, which dovetail with India’s commitment to freedom of navigation and a rules-based order, and some experts see the deployment of Britain’s carrier task group as an effort to reinforce its relevance amid Brexit.

The British mission’s spokesperson described the Indo-Pacific as “increasingly important for the UK, as it is at the centre of global economic growth and a region of increasing geostrategic importance”. The UK has a “range of enduring security interests in the region”, the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also described the UK and India as “natural partners in defence” that “already have high levels of interoperability”, as is evident from bi-annual exercises involving all three services and their joint work on the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.

The 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth, which can carry up to 40 aircraft, was commissioned in late 2017 but next year’s deployment will mark its maiden voyage in international waters. The carrier task group is expected to conduct joint exercises with the US Navy and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, though it couldn’t immediately be confirmed if there are plans for similar drills with the Indian Navy.

The British mission’s spokesperson said the Royal Navy and the Indian Navy have “strong bilateral ties” and training together under the Konkan Exercise, a bilateral drill held biennially.

“The strong maritime relationship with India and other regional partners, regular deployments and a permanent naval presence provides the ability for the UK government to react quickly to a variety of emerging security and humanitarian situations with partners, as well as upholding international maritime law in support of the rules-based international system,” the spokesperson said.

The UK has a long-standing presence in the Gulf and Indian Ocean through Operation Kipion, which now involves the permanent presence of seven warships at any time, typically one frigate or destroyer supported by a tanker and a four-strong squadron of mine-hunters with a support ship.

The British side also pointed to the Royal Navy’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean, where HMS Dragon warship seized drugs with a street value of more than £200 million during operations last year. These operations are backed by maritime information exchanges such as a white shipping agreement with India covering the whole Indian Ocean.

Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said the British naval deployment should be seen in light of two factors – the UK’s efforts to remain relevant amid its exit from the European Union, and Britain’s concerns over China’s crackdown on Hong Kong.

“The UK has a key presence in the Indian Ocean through the Diego Garcia base that is leased to the US. The British naval deployment shows the importance of the region, especially when other European countries are taking the lead in this area,” he said.