The UK’s new aircraft carrier sailed past Gibraltar early on Sunday morning on a maiden operational deployment that will see it visit 40 countries around the world.

The UK Government hopes the deployment will signal to allies that post-Brexit Britain is ready to defend Western interests and uphold respect for international rules.

During a key part of the eight-month voyage, HMS Queen Elizabeth and other vessels in the Carrier Strike Group will cross through the South China Sea in a signal to Beijing that sea lanes must remain open.

HMS Queen Elizabeth had been scheduled to enter British Gibraltar territorial waters on Sunday, though there were no plans to anchor the ship or bring it into port.

In the event though, the ship and its escorts sailed past about three miles off the Rock, where they were met by vessels from the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron and the Gibraltar Defence Police.

Only HMS Richmond entered the Bay of Gibraltar briefly before turning south again and heading back out into the strait.

Plans to host local dignitaries who were going to be ferried aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on helicopters were also shelved at the last minute, as was a press briefing at RAF Gibraltar.

The Ministry of Defence did not explain the reason for the change of plans, although some Spanish media speculated that the decision to sail past the Rock may have followed diplomatic pressure from the Spanish government.

The deployment has been organised as part of the “UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific region” in a bid to “bolster deep defence partnerships” as well as to take part in an exercise to mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Powers Defence Agreement with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

Accompanying HMS Queen Elizabeth is a surface fleet made up of Type 45 destroyers HMS Defender and HMS Diamond, Type 23 anti-submarine frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond, and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Tidespring, as well as the US destroyer USS The Sullivans and Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen.

A Royal Navy Astute-class submarine will also accompany the carrier strike group armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

“This deployment shows that we are strong on our own, but even stronger with our allies,” said UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

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