WASHINGTON — The British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender recently broke away from the HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group to conduct a Black Sea mission that triggered Russia’s reflexive dishonesty. This was one episode among several lately that demonstrate increasing resistance to Russian and Chinese assaults on a rules-based international order.
The Defender sailed close to the Crimean coast, through what Russia has claimed are its territorial waters since it seized Crimea from Ukraine seven years ago.
The Defender’s mission in Ukrainian waters was to demonstrate that the legality of the seizure has never been recognized internationally.
Russia responded by claiming to have fired shots at, and dropped fragmentation bombs near, the Defender, which Russia said then changed course.
Although Russian planes flew low over the ship, no bombs were dropped, the only gunfire was from a previously scheduled Russian exercise nearby, and the Defender did not alter its course, according to the British Defense Ministry.
The British government says the Royal Navy strike group’s 26,000-mile cruise is “the UK’s most ambitious deployment for two decades.”
The group, which includes a U.S. Navy destroyer and a Dutch frigate, conducted combat operations from the Queen Elizabeth in the eastern Mediterranean, attacking forces of the Islamic State, as the Royal Air Force has been doing for seven years from Cyprus.
The Queen Elizabeth, one of only 18 large carriers worldwide, is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy.
Before it left Britain in May, the government said the strike group would be “confident but not confrontational” in the South China Sea, where China illegally claims near-total sovereignty.
Unfortunately, “nonconfrontational” means that the group will not sail through the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing will surely interpret this avoidance as a flinch. Still, with the British Army now smaller than at any time in more than three centuries, the Royal Navy, Europe’s most formidable naval power, augments the complications confronting Chinese as well as Russian war planners.
The Financial Times recently reported U.S.-Japan joint military exercises — presented as disaster relief training — in the South China and East China seas, and “top-secret tabletop war games” in case of “a conflict with China over Taiwan.” Presumably someone thought the no-longer-quite-so-secret games should be publicized, perhaps for the edification of China. The westernmost island in the Japanese archipelago is 68 miles from Taiwan. The Senkaku islands in the East China sea are administered by Japan but claimed by China.
Heino Klinck, a Pentagon official who oversaw military relations with Japan and Taiwan late in the Trump administration, tells the Financial Times: “The Japanese government has increasingly recognized, and even acknowledges publicly, that the defense of Taiwan equates to the defense of Japan.” Evidence of this includes the Hudson Institute’s June 28 virtual event on “The Transformation of Japan’s Security Strategy,” at which Japan’s State Minister for Defense Yasuhide Nakayama described the Taiwan Strait as a “red line of the 21st century.”
He said, “We have to protect … Taiwan as a democratic country.” He called Taiwan more than a “friend,” a “brother,” and said, “We are family.” Emphasizing the increasing collaboration of China and Russia in military exercises near Japan, he stressed the importance of European militaries “exercising in Asia.”
Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso was recently quoted (in remarks at a political fundraiser) saying that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would threaten Japan’s “survival,” so “Japan and the U.S. must defend Taiwan together.” This, even though Japan officially adheres to the “one-China policy” — the increasingly threadbare fiction that Taiwan and People’s Republic of China are somehow part of a single polity.
The Wall Street Journal noted, “In the balance of power between the world’s two largest economies, the U.S. and China, the world’s third-largest economy, Japan, is critical.” And retired U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO, says that “over time” the U.S. policy is to confront China with a “global maritime coalition” that includes, in addition to Japan, “Australia, New Zealand, India, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam.”
Henry Kissinger has said, not unreasonably, that we are in “the foothills” of a cold war with China. And Vladimir Putin, who nurses an unassuageable grudge about the way the Cold War ended, seems uninterested in Russia reconciling itself to a role as a normal nation without gratuitous resorts to mendacity. It is, therefore, well to notice how, day by day, in all of the globe’s time zones, civilized nations are, in word and deed, taking small but cumulatively consequential measures that serve deterrence.
Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.