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UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier pictured in South China Sea

The British Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth has been the center of attention, with state-run Chinese media outlets and diplomats accusing Britain of stirring up trouble in the disputed waters of the South China Sea at the behest of the United States.

Britain has not officially acknowledged the presence of its Carrier Strike Group in the South China Sea, almost all of which is claimed by China as its sovereign territory, but a series of photos posted on the US Navy’s website showing US Marine Corps jets involved in operations off the UK carrier were posted this week with the dateline of the South China Sea.

“A free and open Indo-Pacific region that is peaceful and stable is vital to ensuring greater prosperity for the region and the world,” the photo captions said.

CNN has reached out to both the UK Defense Ministry and the US Marine Corps for comment on the location of the Queen Elizabeth.

Largest deployment in a generation

The British Defense Ministry says the strike group is the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave the UK in a generation.

Ten US F-35 warplanes are deployed aboard the carrier, the byproduct of an agreement between Washington and London to harmonize and integrate the operation of their aircraft carrier fleets. A US Navy destroyer and Dutch frigate are also part of the strike group.

US warplanes fly first combat missions off foreign aircraft carrier since World War II

The group sailed from Britain in May and is expected to go as far as South Korea before heading back home in the fall.

Since 2014, China has worked to turn numerous obscure reefs and sandbars throughout the South China Sea into man-made artificial islands heavily fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems, prompting outcry from other governments with competing claims in the waterway.

Wu Shicun, president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, described the UK carrier deployment as an attempt to “relive the glory days of the British Empire.”

“The latest voyage of British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth is not simply what London calls a crossing of South China Sea waters in accordance with international law, but is a carefully planned trick serving multiple purposes,” read an article from Wu, posted on the PLA’s English-language website.

“It’s no secret that the UK has been acting in complicity with the US on the South China Sea issue, closely following its lead and dancing to its tune,” Wu wrote.

China is doubling down on its territorial claims and that's causing conflict across Asia

“The South China Sea was a symbol of Britain’s glorious colonial past, through which the old-time empire that prided itself on its worldwide colonies shipped back the fortune and treasures it plundered in Asia,” added Wu.

But US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, in a speech in Singapore on Tuesday, called the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s deployment “historic” as he called out what he described as China’s illegitimate claim to most of the South China Sea.

Austin said the UK carrier’s deployment showed the partnerships not only with Washington, but among nations from within and outside the region.

“I’m especially encouraged to see our friends building stronger security ties with one another, further reinforcing the array of partnerships that keeps aggression at bay,” he said.

A statement from the British High Commissioner in Singapore said the carrier strike group was next headed to multilateral exercises in the Philippine Sea.

US destroyer transits Taiwan Strait

As the carrier strike group was moving through the South China Sea, a US Navy surface action group was for the first time bringing together two classes of US warships in the region.

A US 7th Fleet press release said the combination of the littoral combat ship USS Tulsa and the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd marked the first time ships of those classes have ever combined to form a surface action group.

“These types of SAG operations are exceptional opportunities to harness the combined lethality of the fleet,” Capt. Chase Sargeant, a task force commander, said in the release.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, another US guided-missile destroyer, the USS Benfold, transited the Taiwan Strait between the democratically controlled island of Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and near the northern entrance to the South China Sea.

It was the seventh such transit of the Taiwan Strait by a US warship in 2021.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold transits the Taiwan Strait while conducting routine underway operations on Wednesday.

China has also been flexing its military muscles around the region this week with multiple exercises, according to state-run media outlets.

Two areas of the northern part of the South China Sea were placed under restricted access this week for the exercises, according to an article in the state-run tabloid Global Times

“While the Chinese military drills are not likely directly related to the UK warships, they show that the PLA is at a high combat readiness,” the report said.

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