UK's largest warship docks at Changi as two more warships sail into region

F-35B jets on board the British Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier, which docked in Changi on Oct 11 as part of its maiden deployment. PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO
(From top) RSS Vigour and RSS Formidable and the HMS Queen Elizabeth exercise together on Oct 9, 2021. PHOTO: ROYAL NAVY
F-35Bs on HMS Queen Elizabeth, with the RSS Formidable and RSS Vigour in the background. PHOTO: ROYAL NAVY
The flight deck onboard UK Carrier Strike Group’s HMS Queen Elizabeth docked at Changi Naval Base, on Oct 11, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - One of the two largest warships ever built for the British Royal Navy docked at Changi on Monday (Oct 11), carrying on its deck F-35B jets and helicopters, and accompanied by other warships further out at sea.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier, on its maiden operational deployment, is here after sailing through 40 countries in the Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific in what is the most significant show of maritime and air power to leave the United Kingdom in a generation.

Its movement comes amid fraught tensions in the region, with the South China Sea subjected to intensified wrangling by various countries in recent years.

China has, in particular, criticised Britain as "still living in its colonial days", and warned the UK carrier strike group, which crossed the South China Sea, against carrying out "improper acts".

At a press conference on board HMS Queen Elizabeth on Monday, the commander of the carrier strike group, Commodore Steve Moorhouse, said that conduct between Chinese and UK ships had seen nothing untoward.

"It is a big piece of international water, so lots of nations were flying and sailing there. There was lots of Chinese activity, but it was absolutely safe, professional, and due distances and ranges were kept," he said.

While here, the 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth will host Singapore officials and industry leaders, as well as a virtual question-and-answer session between the ship's female engineers and Singaporean girls interested in careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sector.

The UK, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand are also marking the 50th anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, established in 1971 upon British departure from the island state.

The agreement states that the five powers are to consult each other immediately in the event or threat of an armed attack on any one of them to decide next steps.

Welcoming the press on Monday, British High Commissioner to Singapore Kara Owen said that the vessel's stay here - it leaves on Tuesday - is a short but significant one.

"HMS Queen Elizabeth's visit demonstrates our commitment to invest much more deeply in our relationships with each other. One of the key themes of our (vision) is how we intend to strengthen our ties with the region, establishing a greater and more consistent presence that we have done in recent years," Ms Owen said.

In addition to defence and security, Singapore and the UK's cooperation also includes the areas of trade and prosperity, as well as science and research, she added.

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Two more British warships, the HMS Tamar and HMS Spey, are also on their way to the Indo-Pacific for more permanent assignments. Drug smuggling and other illegal activities are among some of the more pressing challenges, Ms Owen suggested.

Last Saturday, the Republic of Singapore Air Force's F-16 fighters took to the skies together with the F-35B jets from the HMS Queen Elizabeth in the southern reaches of the South China Sea in a simulated air combat training and formation flying exercise.

The Republic of Singapore Navy also conducted a manoeuvring exercise with the UK carrier strike group.

Commodore Moorhouse reiterated that the force does not target any particular country, and is instead designed "to recognise the importance of the region globally".

"The group's presence also demonstrates our support for the freedom of navigation passage through vital trading routes and our commitment to an international system of norms that benefits all countries," he said.

The deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth here is widely seen as a marked step-up in the UK's engagement with the Asia-Pacific.

The warship, which can carry up to 40 aircraft, set sail in May, participating in a range of activities with partners and allies en route. It will sail over 26,000 nautical miles in this deployment.

An F-35B Lightning jet from the UK Carrier Strike Group, seen from a Republic of Singapore Air Force's F-16 fighter, on Oct 9, 2021. PHOTO: REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE AIR FORCE

At the press conference on Monday, Royal Air Force Chief of Air Staff Mike Wigston downplayed concerns about the Aukus deal between the United States, the UK and Australia, which has captured headlines worldwide.

The Aukus trilateral security pact formed on Sept 15 will, among other things, help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines with US technology.

The announcement led to a fallout among UK allies such as France, which recalled its ambassadors from the US and Australia after Australia tore up existing plans to buy a French-built fleet of submarines.

Air Chief Marshal Wigston said Aukus was merely an extension of what the three powers had already been working on for many decades.

"It's just bringing together a number of sectors and initiatives that were already in play, (even though) a lot of the initial focus and the news stories were about the submarines," he said.

Aukus has not impacted the aim or conduct of the carrier strike group, Commodore Moorhouse added. "Nothing has changed."

On Monday, the UK's Minister for Asia Amanda Milling met Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sim Ann and discussed existing work between the two on boosting trade and the digital economy.

They also talked about the UK's ongoing bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement between 11 countries representing 13 per cent of the world economy that was signed in 2018.

Ms Milling also met Senior Minister of State for Defence Zaqy Mohamad on board the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Correction note: A previous version of this story said UK's Minister for Asia Amanda Milling met Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sim Ann on board the HMS Queen Elizabeth. This is inaccurate. They met at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We are sorry for the error.

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