France Enters the South China Sea Fray

The USS Michael Murphy (right) and French frigate FS Vendemiaire perform a Passing Exercise (PASSEX) in the South China Sea in November 2014. Photo by US Navy / CC BY-SA 2.0


When it comes to the debate surrounding China’s claims on the South China Sea, we primarily hear of escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing. European states have generally executed restraint when it comes to the disputes over the sovereignty of the South China Sea, which is what makes France’s forceful late entry into the debate an interesting occurrence, although timely and legitimate.

On June 5th, France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian entered into the South China Sea debate by expressing the hope that European navies would move to have a “regular and visible presence” patrolling the region. Citing concern for future breaches of International Maritime Law, Le Drian stated, “If the law of the sea is not respected today in the China seas, it will be threatened tomorrow in the Arctic, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere.”

While Beijing shot back at Minister Le Drian for his comments, his remarks were echoed by Canadian, Indian, and NATO representatives who were also present at the Singapore conference. This was followed up by a sharp warning from US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter regarding China’s risk of erecting, “a great wall of self-isolation in the region.” China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar and Brunei all have competing claims in the South China sea, an important trade waterway where over $3 trillion worth of goods passes annually.

Minister Le Drian’s comments on behalf of France were made at the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Shangri-La Dialogue, which convened in Singapore for three days to discuss Asian security challenges. They come just ahead of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s expected ruling in The Hague on a lengthy dispute between China and the Philippines. Beijing has already openly rejected the court’s authority to render a verdict.

French ministers present in Singapore also indicated that they plan to hold discussions with European Union partners in search of a guarantee that EU navies would more frequently navigate these waters in efforts to help retain the territorial integrity of the waterway and prevent further Chinese encroachment. While the Netherlands and the United Kingdom currently send ships to the area from time to time, France aims to coordinate a more unified presence and end long gaps between patrols by EU states engaged in the region.

France’s outspoken remarks, barely veiling a direct attack on Beijing, illustrates a dramatic change in their previous ambivalence towards the escalation of tension in relation to the disputed waterway. Le Drian stated, “This is a message that France will continue to be present at international forums. It’s also a message that France will continue to act upon, by sailing its ships and flying its planes wherever international law will allow, and wherever operational needs request that we do so.”

What makes France’s late entry into the debate carry weight is not only the timeliness ahead of the expected ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration but also the fact that France also sits on an elevated sense of credibility regarding its newly vocalized position: While the United States has continually threatened and exchanged heated language about China’s forceful military presence and land claims, Washington is not a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) whereas France and other members of the European Union are signed parties to the convention (as is China). Thus, the potential support and partnership with France and possible coordination amongst other European Union nations following the International Court of Arbitration’s verdict legitimizes the United States’ position and champions European principles.

Europe has no direct strategic presence or role in Asia, simply economic and trade interests. Therefore, their entrance into the debate carries significance against other great powers that attempt to resolve territorial disputes through force or coercion. With France’s entrance into the debate, the United States now has some of its closest allies in on the conversation. A strong condemnation from EU nations regarding Beijing’s failure to comply with the future ruling strategically strengthens the US position.

The US should be focused on developing a strong and coordinated transatlantic stance, which promotes the respect of International Maritime law in Southeast Asia and beyond. Instead of allowing this debate to further escalate or elongating the current stalemate, the United States must be proactive in making sure that both US interests and EU interests in the region are protected. While the United States interests in the region remain centered on limiting China’s elevation as a world power, the EU’s interests are primarily economic and trade-related.

Finally, since the tensions regarding the Southeast Asian waterway are impossible to solve overnight, the United States must rely on its European partners, such as France, to help the situation from escalating further. Specifically, it will be necessary for European states to press the United States to become a signatory to UNCLOS. Without this ratification, the US hinders their ability to produce expanded and long-term transatlantic coordination regarding the South China Sea debate. In the meantime, we can watch closely for the ruling out of The Hague and remain optimistic that other European nations will find the promotion of Global International Maritime Law a cause worthy of its vocal support.

Kelsey Fraser is an American ex-pat currently living and working in Germany. She has a Masters in Transatlantic Relations from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and spends most of her time reading about human rights, European history, and thinking about when is the appropriate time for her next cup of coffee. Twitter handle @klfraser7.

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