Britain might send aircraft carrier to back Australian vessels patrolling South China Sea
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop insisted the two countries were ‘like-minded nations’ promoting ‘peace and stability’
Australia and Britain are discussing plans for the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to be sent to the Pacific amid tensions over China’s militarisation in the South China Sea.
Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop discussed joint naval operations in the Pacific region with UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, during their visit this week.
In an effort to highlight the defence ties, Williamson and Payne visited BAe Systems shipyards on the Clyde in Glasgow to inspect new Type 26 frigates of the kind Australia bought last month in a £20 billion ($36 billion) deal, and the UK nuclear submarine base at Faslane.
At a joint news conference in Edinburgh on Friday, which included Britain’s new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Bishop said there had a been a distinct shift in “great power relations” that had fuelled an unprecedented level of global volatility.
No one mentioned China’s appropriation and militarisation of islands claimed by other Southeast Asian countries – it has built airbases and installed missile systems close to its neighbours and increased its control of regional sea lanes.
Bishop referred instead to the challenges to international “norms and conventions” in the Pacific region. Payne said there were clear threats to the “rules-based international order”.
The four ministers said these threats justified greater defence and security cooperation between the UK and Australia, supported by an increase in British diplomatic outposts in south-Pacific countries such as Tonga and Vanuatu.
“At such a critical juncture in world affairs, we feel it is vital for like-minded nations to join together to promote peace and stability,” Bishop said. “We couldn’t be more delighted that the UK will be taking an increasing role in the Indo-Pacific.”
Citing an increased threat from submarines in the Pacific, operated by unnamed countries, Williamson highlighted Australia’s decision to buy nine Type 26 frigates, which will be built by BAe in Adelaide, and renamed by the Royal Australian Navy as Hunter class vessels.
“We have started to see a step change in our relationship,” he said. “For the first time since 2013, Britain has been deploying ships to the Pacific region. We have three this year, and this isn’t something we want to see as a flash in the pan but actually a commitment to the region that goes forward over the coming years.
“We’re very much hoping and going to work together on deploying HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific and hopefully sailing side by side with Australian vessels. And we want to make sure that everyone around the world understands that these two great nations are the greatest of allies.”
But the HMS Queen Elizabeth has been plagued by problems.
Soon after the warship was unveiled last year, The Sun newspaper reported that it was letting in 200 litres of water every hour and fixing it would cost millions of pounds. There have also been reports that computers on the warship use Windows XP, a version of Microsoft’s operating system that is out of date and no longer supported.
Bishop and Hunt were also asked about Donald Trump’s demands that Western countries double their defence spending, and whether that was achievable. Bishop said Trump had made “a very valid point” about the need for increased defence spending and “burden sharing” among US allies.
Payne said the Australian government was on track to increase defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP before the target date of 2023-24, through a “very solid programme” of updating military equipment, including buying US F35 fighters and E18 Growler electronic warfare aircraft, and future submarines.
Additional reporting by Associated Press