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With its support for US strategy, France is playing with fire in the South China Sea

2021-03-29 12:21:54       source:South China Morning Post

March 13, 2021

As two French warships approach the South China Sea, France needs to pause and re-evaluate the signals it is sending China. The French Armed Forces Ministry said the passage was in support of “freedom of navigation”, but this term has become politically loaded because the vast majority of US freedom of navigation operations in the region are aimed at China. There is a lot that can be read into France’s actions.


It already appears to China that France is generally supportive of US political and military strategy in the region. This invites China’s economic, political and possibly military wrath. France is playing with fire.


In the Trump era, the US’ goal in the region was to maintain its hegemony. So far, the Biden administration has not disavowed that goal, and seems to still be pursuing it. China and Southeast Asia view French policy in Asia in the context of its alliance with the US and its past as a colonial master.


It won’t take much to convince China that France is supporting US efforts to contain it. This is the signal France is sending by participating in joint exercises with India, Australia, Japan and the US.


Although French President Emmanuel Macron has appealed for European “strategic autonomy” from the US, actions speak louder than words.


To China, France’s first significant strategic signal came in 2019, when it sent the warship Vendemiaire through the Taiwan Strait. Although this was not the first French passage through the sensitive waters, it came at a time of frequent US warship passages and growing Chinese anger. China responded by disinviting France from the naval parade in honour of the 70th anniversary of China’s navy.


China views such warship passages as threatening and contrary to the one-China policy. At the very least, it considers them unfriendly.


Then France announced in February that it had sent the nuclear attack submarine Emeraude and a support vessel through the South China Sea. French Defence Minister Florence Parly called it “striking proof of the capacity of our French navy to deploy far away and for a long time, together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners”.


This must be considered against the backdrop of French strategic policy. In 2018, Macron called for the creation of a Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis to gain China’s respect. Pierre Vandier, chief of staff of the French navy, said last year: “We want to demonstrate our presence to the region … This is a message aimed at China. This is a message about multilateral partnerships and the freedom of passage.”


China does recognise the difference between American freedom of navigation operations and normal transits. France needs to be careful to maintain a distinction between the two.


In contrast, although a German warship plans to transit the South China Sea, Germany has declared that the ship will not enter the claimed territorial waters around the features there. In a sign of the political sensitivity of the passage, the US hailed Germany’s “support for a rules-based international order”, while China warned countries not to take freedom of navigation “as an excuse to undermine the sovereignty and security of littoral countries”.


A French frigate and an amphibious assault ship are now making their way to the South China Sea. It is not clear whether they will pass through the Taiwan Strait. If they do, China’s reaction will be unpleasant. If they do not, it will send a signal that France does not want to further offend China. This is a dilemma of its own making.


France would surely sour relations with China, and perhaps even cross a red line, if it were to send its warships through the Qiongzhou (or Hainan) Strait, between China’s Leizhou Peninsula and Hainan island. Yet, this is what the French are reported to be planning.


China, with some legal justification, considers this strait to be internal waters. Moreover, since the Qiongzhou Strait is not wider than 24 nautical miles, it falls entirely within China’s 12 nautical mile territorial limits. China requires foreign warships to seek prior permission before entering its territorial seas.


But the US – along with, presumably, France – maintains that the transit passage regime applies in the Hainan Strait and cannot be suspended. Unless France and China work this out beforehand, it might just lead to kinetic conflict.


China is conducting a month-long military exercise in the area and has issued a notice to mariners restricting ship movements.


In 2019, China and France signed multibillion-dollar deals. Despite French denials, the words and actions of the French military may be interpreted as hostile by China. French businesses invested in China should be worried. France’s much vaunted claim to be setting an independent foreign policy sounds rather hollow. It appears France is trying to have its cake and eat it.


The French are going to have to decide if they really want to stick their neck out economically to further US hegemony in the region – and the American myth that freedom of commercial navigation is under threat.


Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

Link: https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3124873/its-support-us-strategy-france-playing-fire-south-china-sea