Theresa May distances herself from Gavin Williamson's comments on aircraft carrier in South China Sea
Defence secretary warns China is 'developing its modern capability and commercial power' but prime minister's spokesman says it is 'a country with which we have a strong and constructive relationship'
Downing Street has distanced itself from comments made by defence secretary Gavin Williamson in which he outlined plans to send Britain’s new aircraft carrier to disputed waters in the Pacific.
Mr Williamson announced that HMS Queen Elizabeth‘s first operational mission would take place in an area where China had been involved in an ongoing dispute over navigation rights, saying that the UK had to be ready to use "hard power".
But Ms May’s official spokesman said the carrier would not be deployed until 2021, that it would visit a number of global locations and that the PM would take the final decision over its route.
Asked about Mr Williamson’s comments, the prime minister’s spokesman said: ”In relation to China, I think we have set out areas where we have concerns – such as around cyber-intrusions against the UK and our allies. But it is also a country with which we have a strong and constructive relationship.”
Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, Mr Williamson said Britain would buy and adapt cargo ships or ferries to bring two new vessels into service which could rapidly respond to a crisis and carry out a range of operations.
Revealing the new "Littoral Strike Ship concept", he said: "These globally deployable, multi-role vessels would be able to conduct a wide range of operations from crisis support to war fighting. They would support our future Commando force, our world-renowned Royal Marines – they will be forward deployed at exceptionally high readiness and able to respond at a moment's notice – bringing the fight from the sea to land."
The two ships could be based to the east of Suez in the Indo-Pacific and to the west of Suez in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic, he said.
Mr Williamson that during operations to tackle extremism aginst actors such as Isis and al-Qaeda, state-on-state competition was being revived.
He said: “Russia is resurgent – rebuilding its military arsenal to bring the independent countries of the former Soviet Union like Georgia and Ukraine back into its orbit. All the while China is developing its modern capability and commercial power.”
Mr Williamson said boundaries between peace and war were becoming blurred by the increasing use of technological warfare, subversion and propaganda, and that Britain and its allies had to be ready to use hard power to support the country's global interests.
Discussing Brexit, he said: ”As we leave the European Union, and with the world changing so rapidly, it is up to us to seize the opportunities that Brexit brings. We will build new alliances, rekindle old ones and most importantly make it clear that we are the country that will act when required. We should be the nation that people turn to when the world needs leadership.”
He said the HMS Queen Elizabeth would also work in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions.
Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Jamie Stone questioned the announcement that the HMS Queen Elizabeth would be deployed to the Pacific region.
“Gavin Williamson is heating up UK defence rhetoric, something which may well be seen as provocation by Beijing. This comes following years of hollowing-out of Britain’s military capabilities, with the British Army now at the smallest it has been in decades,” he said. “Do we really have the capacity at the moment to send this ship over to showboat?
“Rather than flaunting the HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Pacific, the Conservatives should instead be focusing on the pressing issues facing the British armed forces at the moment, including the £15bn shortfall in the MoD’s equipment plan over the next decade.”