USS Gerald R. Ford sailors watch as the British Royal Navy aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth steams through the Atlantic Ocean, Nov. 25, 2019.

USS Gerald R. Ford sailors watch as the British Royal Navy aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth steams through the Atlantic Ocean, Nov. 25, 2019. (Angel Thuy Jaskuloski/U.S. Navy)

Britain’s Royal Navy will send its newest aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, and its strike group near Japan “as soon as early next year,” Kyodo News reported over the weekend.

The strike group is expected to exercise with the U.S. and Japan Self-Defense Forces in the waters near Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, the southern chain that includes Okinawa, the news agency reported, citing unnamed Japanese government sources.

Japan Ministry of Defense officials on Monday told Stars and Stripes they were aware of the reports, but nothing has been decided.

The report comes as tensions grow over China’s militarization and claims of sovereignty over islands and reefs in the South and East China seas. The U.S. in July formally denied China’s “illegal claims” in the region, and Japan regularly protests Chinese incursions into the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands. The islands are also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyus, and by Taiwan.

United Kingdom Defense Minister Gavin Williamson in February 2019 announced the Queen Elizabeth’s first operational mission would include the contentious South China Sea, “making a global Great Britain a reality.”

China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, expressed dismay over the plan, calling on the U.K. to not “gang up with the United States on the Chinese,” according to a July 18 report by The Times newspaper in London.

Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its territorial waters and believes it has a historic right to the region; however, a United Nations panel in 2016 ruled in a case brought by the Philippines that those claims are invalid.

“After Brexit I think the U.K. still wants to play an important role in the world,” Liu told the Times. “That is not the way to play an important role.”

The U.S. Navy regularly sends ships through the region. The aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan conducted rare dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea in July.

The Queen Elizabeth, commissioned in 2017, took its maiden voyage, to the U.S., in August 2018, but its patrol of the Pacific next year will be its first operational patrol, according to a Royal Navy statement on May 25.

The ship will carry both British and American F-35 Lightning II fighter jets on upcoming patrols, Williamson said last year during a speech at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies.

The Queen Elizabeth displaces 65,000 tons, a bit more than half the size of the Reagan, stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.

The Queen Elizabeth is one of two U.K. aircraft carriers. The other is the HMS Prince of Wales, which is not expected to deploy until 2023, according to a Nov. 19 report in Forbes magazine. The Queen Elizabeth’s battle group includes a submarine, two destroyers, two frigates, a tanker and a stores ship, along with a frigate the Dutch plan to send, according to Forbes.

A 2021 patrol would be the first for the British carrier, but the Royal Navy in 2018 and 2019 sent frigates through the South China Sea. The frigate HMS Argyll and the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell last year conducted the first U.S.-U.K. joint military exercise in the sea since Beijing began militarizing islands there, 7th Fleet officials said at the time.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report. Twitter: @CaitlinDoornbos

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.

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