TOULON, FRANCE — In what appears as a response to the United States president Joseph Biden’s call to the G7 and European Union (EU) to “work together” in challenging China’s alleged “expansionist” foreign policies, France discloses it is stepping up its military presence in the South China Sea by planning two voyages through the disputed waters.
In an official statement, the French navy reveals that an amphibious assault ship the Tonnere and the frigate Surcouf have left their home port Toulon on Thursday, 18 February, and are headed to the Pacific on a three-month mission.
The website Naval News reports that the ships will cross the South China Sea twice and take part in a combined exercise with Japanese and US naval forces this coming May of the current year.
Capt Arnaud Tranchant, commanding officer of the Tonnerre, told Naval News that the French navy would “work to strengthen” France’s partnership with the US, Japan, India, and Australia—the so-called Quad.
When asked whether he was planning to transit the Taiwan Strait, Tranchant says he has “not yet traced our roads in this area.”
Similar missions in 2015 and 2017 also saw French navy vessels sailing through the South China Sea, but analysts said the latest exercise is a sign of France stepping up engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.
French nuclear attack submarine Émeraude and naval support ship the Seine had recently sailed through the South China Sea, triggering intense criticism from Beijing.
But geopolitical experts say France will further reinforce its opposition to China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea by increasing the frequency of its operations in the region, aiming to maintain a “normal presence” to protect French interests there.
China should reflect on how to deal with the pressure
France established its Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, the first major European country to do so. Fu Kuncheng, dean of South China Sea Institute at Xiamen University, says the patrols and exercise in the disputed waters were “alarming” and China should reflect on how to deal with the pressure.
In recent times, Japan-US have held joint military drills, including cyber warfare training as concerns about China grew.
“It’s clear that the US hopes to combine with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies to show off their muscles in the South China Sea with exercises and so-called freedom of navigation (operations),” Fu points out.
“When these countries advocate freedom of navigation, China should send warships to accompany them. But if they enter the territorial waters claimed by China, we must protest in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he says.
In agreement, Hu Bo, director of Beijing-based think tank the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, notes that “the Indo-Pacific has become more and more important (and at present) France is trying to strengthen its military presence in the South China Sea.
Hu, however, said that the move could be difficult for France as its military power has been shrinking in recent years.”
Last week, the US Navy sent its aircraft carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz, into the contested waters, accompanied by other warships.
“It’s obvious that France aims to demonstrate its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, especially under pressure from the United States, to cooperate with the military deployment and activities of the US,” former People’s Liberation Army instructor and now military commentator Song Zhongping says. (SA/Headline PH)
Featured image: The Surcouf (F711) is a La Fayette-class frigate of the French Navy. (Photo by Franck Dubey)