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British cutting-edge aircraft carrier visits Japan, but sustaining presence a challenge

By Ohashi Takushi, Bando Kazumasa

 

The Japanese government welcomes the visit to Japan of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the British Royal Navy’s advanced aircraft carrier. This is because, in addition to the so-called Quad, a quadrilateral framework among Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India, increasing involvement by the U.K. and other European countries in the Indo-Pacific region will lead to the “encirclement” of China’s increasing maritime expansion. However, there are issues that need to be addressed in order to strengthen the UK’s presence in the region.

 

U.K. Defense Minister Ben Wallace, who visited Japan in July, used the word “alliance” during a courtesy call on Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide , saying that the dispatch of a UK aircraft carrier “must demonstrate our strategic strength to competitors who are trying to undermine our values.” A senior official of the Japanese Defense Ministry explained, “The comment [of Defense Minister Wallace] is a sign of Britain’s will and ability not to allow any disruption of the free and open maritime order.”

 

The U.K. announced the permanent deployment of two patrol vessels to coincide with Defense Minister Wallace’s visit to Japan, which indicates that the U.K. will continue to increase its involvement in the region. The Japanese government is considering concluding an agreement with the British government that will simplify procedures for mutual visits between the SDF and British forces.

 

The U.K. is not the only nation participating in the encirclement of China. In May, the GSDF, the French army, and the U.S. Marine Corps conducted their first full-scale live-fire drill in Japan. In late August, the MSDF and the German navy conducted a joint drill in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia in eastern Africa. A German frigate is scheduled to make a port call in Japan within the year. “Malabar 2021,” a joint exercise among Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India that started last month was conducted near the U.S. territory of Guam and in the Western Pacific. Efforts to conduct exercises involving the Quad are being regularized.

 

However, Robert Ward of the British Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) said, “It is questionable whether the U.K. will be able to demonstrate its presence in the Indo-Pacific region in the long term.” Some experts point out that a large frigate is more suitable for constant deployment than a patrol vessel, given the Chinese threat in the South China Sea. In its “Integrated Review” released in March, the British government, while indicating that it will strengthen its involvement in the Indo-Pacific region, identified Russia as the “greatest threat.”

 

The British Royal Navy has about 10 frigates, but the number may decrease with future decommissioning. It seems that the Royal Navy could not afford to deploy a frigate to the Indo-Pacific region due to the limited number of these vessels. It will be a challenge for the U.K. to maintain its presence in the region as it is pressed to respond to the threat from Russia.

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