South China Sea: HMS Queen Elizabeth facing ‘high risk of incidents’ with Beijing’s ships

South China Sea: Tension between China and Philippines escalates

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Experts have warned that the new vessel will be at risk of “incidents” with Chinese forces when it sails through the South China Sea, a hotly disputed region. Beijing’s leaders have recently warned that they are carrying out “necessary measures to safeguard sovereignty”, in response to the UK’s patrol plans. HMS Queen Elizabeth will be joined by two Type 45 destroyers, two Type 23 frigates, a nuclear submarine, a Tide-class tanker and RFA Fort Victoria. Charles Parton, OBE, warned that “we will see more tensions around them, and therefore a greater risk of an incident” when the ships move through the waters.

Meia Nouwens also warned that China’s “development of submersibles and unmanned underwater vehicles present an added challenge”.

She added: “We know China is developing these capabilities. Where this goes … will be an added challenge in terms of how we deal with grey zone tactics.”

Ms Nouwens, senior fellow for Chinese Defence Policy and Military Modernisation at The International Institute for Strategic Studies, also raised concerns over an “uptick in the tempo of exercises” undertaken by the Chinese navy in the South China Sea, breeding concerns of an accidental skirmish.

She added that so far there have been 44 incursions by the Chinese in 2021, which have been “multiple at both day and night time”.

The Chinese Government has attempted to assert its country’s authority over 90 percent of the South China Sea with its Nine-Dash line claim.

The waters are hotly contested because of its lucrative shipping lanes, capacity for military-strategic advantages and wealth of natural resources such as oil and minerals.

Branded “island fortresses” by some experts, China has adapted man-made island bases in the region.

But this has angered many neighbouring countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

As HMS Queen Elizabeth prepares to patrol the South China Sea, this could lead to similar Beijing-London tensions seen in previous years.

In September 2018, a similar patrol was undertaken aboard the UK’s HMS Albion.

Tensions appeared to have spiralled out of control when Beijing sent a frigate and two helicopters to the region, suggesting a military challenge was imminent.

However, as Reuters reported at the time, the encounter didn’t result in any hostility.

Beijing sent a chilling warning in response to the action though, telling those in London that: “China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty and security.”

The US has been the main antidote to China’s aggression in the contested waters.

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Professor Kerry Brown, an expert on Chinese affairs, told in 2019 that communications between Beijing and Washington were worse than Cold War-era hostility between the US and Russia.

He said: “There could be a misunderstanding, there could be an instance where it escalates.

“At the moment dialogue between the US and China military to military is poor, some people say that it’s worse than between the USSR and the US during the Cold War.

“There was a lot more contact then than there is now with China, therefore misunderstandings are horribly, horribly possible.”

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