The Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier strike group will take a controversial route to avoid provoking China on her first major voyage, The Telegraph can reveal.
Although HMS Queen Elizabeth will sail through the South China Sea, a vital shipping route which Beijing has become increasingly assertive over in recent years, she will not sail through the Taiwan Strait, instead going east as she makes her way up to Japan for the final section of the trip.
However, the decision not to sail the £3 billion warship through the strait on a voyage that will focus on freedom of navigation operations, has raised eyebrows due to Beijing’s vow to annex Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, said the Government and Royal Navy “need to rethink this journey”.
He said: “I'm pleased the Aircraft Carrier is deploying in the South China Sea but they need to complete this process by letting the Chinese know that they disapprove of their very aggressive actions against their neighbours by sailing through the Taiwan Strait. I hope they will revisit their schedule, and ensure that this happens.”
Watch: HMS Queen Elizabeth: Britain's biggest aircraft carrier
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said the carrier strike group’s maiden voyage had been “rolled out as such an important statement of intent” and worried it could be “diminished” over “fear of offence”.
Mr Ellwood said the “purpose” of the journey, pictured below, to the Indo Pacific “is to stand up to the authoritarianism of China”.
“Many will wonder how a carrier visit to the South China Sea will alter China’s behaviour. Clearly it won’t and instead we are altering our behaviour,” he said.
Meanwhile Robert Clark, defence fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, said while the voyage will send “a powerful message to China and defend the freedom of navigation through international waters”, he cautioned that on its onward voyage up to Japan, “the group should continue the precedent set by the French Navy two years previously and sail through the international waters of the Taiwan Strait”.
“This would be in keeping with US and British maritime policy of recognising the freedom of international waters,” he said.
However Admiral Lord West, the former first sea lord, believed such a move was “unnecessary”.
“I think it’s enough of a statement by going through the South China Sea,” he said. “You don’t need to rub people’s faces in it by travelling through the Formosa Strait.”
The Telegraph can also reveal that the carrier strike group will deploy from Portsmouth the week commencing Monday May 24, with personnel instructed to be ready in Portsmouth from May 18. Sources have said there is a chance she will deploy on her maiden voyage as early as Sunday, May 23.
Its first stop will be Gibraltar, before sailing through the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal, during which time the Royal Navy will complete exercises with both Nato and non-Nato partners. This will include anti-submarine warfare exercises.
The vessels will then transit Suez, making their way to Duqm, the UK’s base in Oman, for a stopover of up to a week, before sailing the Indian Ocean and engaging in light joint exercises with the Indian navy, followed by a brief stop over in Singapore. The voyage will finish with one to two weeks of joint exercises with the Japanese and Americans.
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