The maiden voyage of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will seek to show allies that post-Brexit Britain is ready to defend Western interests and eager to see China respect international rules, the vessel's commander has said.
Commodore Steve Moorhouse, the ship's commanding officer and captain, said the carrier's forthcoming voyage was "a hugely powerful statement".
On Friday the ship took part in Nato exercises in the Mediterranean ahead of the journey that will cross through the South China Sea in a signal to Beijing that sea lanes must remain open.
"It shows that we are a global navy and wanting to be back out there," Moorhouse said. Referring to the Indo-Pacific that includes India and Australia he added: "The aim for us is that this deployment will be part of a more persistent presence for the United Kingdom in that region."
Asked about UK efforts to step up influence in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China's rising power – a strategy also followed by the EU and supported by Nato – Moorhouse said: "We want to uphold international norms... our presence out there is absolutely key."
In the Mediterranean, the British carrier group is part of one of Nato's biggest drills of the year, Steadfast Defender, that includes a maritime live exercise with around 5,000 forces and 18 ships.
"It sends a message of Nato's resolve," Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said onboard the aircraft carrier.
"We face global threats and challenges, including the shifting balance of power with the rise of China," he said, adding that although China had the world's biggest navy, it was not considered an adversary by NATO.
Watch: HMS Queen Elizabeth departs HMNB Portsmouth ahead of its maiden operation
Prior to its departure, the Queen visited the HMS Queen Elizabeth on Saturday.
Arriving by helicopter, the 95-year-old monarch was greeted by the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Angus Essenhigh, and Commodore Moorhouse.
While aboard, she was given a briefing on the upcoming deployment and had a chance to chat with some of the 1,700 personnel, including Royal Navy sailors, Royal Air Force airmen and women, Royal Marines and 250 United States personnel.
The queen wore a scarab brooch that had been a gift from her late husband, Prince Philip, a former high-ranking naval officer who died last month at age 99.
Boris Johnson also visited the ship and met with the crew ahead of its voyage around the world.
“One of the things we’ll be doing clearly is showing to our friends in China that we believe in the international law of the sea and, in a confident but not a confrontational way, we will be vindicating that point,” Johnson said last Friday.
China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it.
The US has long opposed China's expansive territorial claims there, sending warships regularly through the waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation. About $3tn worth of trade passes through it each year.
The UK, like China, now has two aircraft carriers, both countries dwarfed by the US's 11. The new 65,000-tonne vessel carries eight British F-35Bs and 10 US F-35s as well as 250 US marines as part of its 1,700-strong crew.
It will lead two destroyers, two frigates, a submarine and two support ships on its journey of 26,000 nautical miles, joined by a US destroyer and a frigate from the Dutch navy.
The UK was the main battlefield ally of the US Iraq and Afghanistan and, alongside France, the principal military power in the EU.
But the decision of the UK to leave the EU after the Brexit vote raised questions about its global role.
Partly in response to those concerns, London announced its biggest military spending increase since the Cold War late last year and has been touting the clout of the carrier, built at a cost of more than £3bn.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will exercise with naval vessels from the US, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea along the route, Moorhouse said.
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