France is increasing its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, sending warships through the South China Sea and planning air exercises to help counter China’s military build-up in disputed waters.
The French assault ship Dixmude and a frigate late last month sailed through the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) and around a group of reefs that China has turned into islets to push back against Beijing’s claim to own most of the South China Sea.
“Our patrol involved passing close to these islets to obtain intelligence with all the sensors it is possible to use in international waters,” the Dixmude’s commanding officer, Jean Porcher, told reporters in a video interview.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jonas Parello-Plesner, a researcher from the US-based Hudson Institute think tank who was onboard, said that “several Chinese frigates and corvettes” tailed the French vessels.
Porcher said the ship maintained “cordial” radio contact with Chinese military vessels, “which were present in the area until we left.”
So far the US has taken the lead in confronting China over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which are contested by several neighbors, including Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
However, France, which along with the UK is the only European nation to regularly send its navy into the region, has also waded into the dispute, sending its ships into the area three to five times a year.
In August, the French Air Force is to stage its biggest-ever exercises in Southeast Asia as part of a strategy to mark France’s presence in a region that is home to 1.5 million French citizens in the nation’s overseas territories.
Three Rafale fighter jets, one A400M troop transporter and a C135 refueling tanker are to fly from Australia to India, with several stop-offs along the way.
The sea and air operations follow a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron last month to Australia, where he spoke of the need to protect the Indo-Pacific region from “hegemony” — a veiled reference to Beijing’s growing might.
A “strong Indo-Pacific axis” was needed to ensure respect for freedom of navigation and aviation in the region, he told Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Macron appears to be “realistically assessing the growing Chinese challenge,” Parello-Plesner said.
“This is a welcome change from his predecessors, who were enthralled by the business and investment opportunities in China,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
France had already began to push back against China’s expansionism before Macron took power.
Since 2014, the navy has sailed regularly through the South China Sea as part of its stated bid to uphold a rules-based maritime order.
In 2016, then-French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (now minister for Europe and foreign affairs) called on other European navies to develop a regular and visible presence in the South China Sea.
Besides protecting navigation, France has cited the need to defend the interests of its citizens scattered across five French territories in the Pacific, including New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
Valerie Niquet, an expert on the Asia-Pacific region at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said France’s growing assertiveness showed the US was no longer the only Western power “getting involved in the area.”
“Faced with China the US obviously plays the main deterrent role, but it’s not pointless or trivial for a power like France, a permanent member of the [UN] Security Council, to take a firm, principled position and carry out concrete actions,” she said, predicting that it would “marginalize China’s position a little bit more.”
Analysts point to another factor for the growing activism: The need to show buyers of French arms that Paris has their back.
In 2016, India agreed buy 36 Rafale fighter jets and Australia signed a deal for 12 French submarines.
“That is also doubtlessly pushing France to be a lot firmer on subjects that, up until recently, were broached with great care,” Niquet said.
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