Will the European Union become a more active player in the crowded waters of the South China Sea?
Throwing his country’s support behind U.S. initiatives to promote freedom of navigation and overflight in the increasingly tense South China Sea, France’s Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told attendees of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an Asian security forum, that France would encourage the European Union to undertake “regular and visible” patrols in the area.
In recent months, tensions in the South China Sea have steadily grown, amid regional concerns over China’s constructions of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands and continuing militarization in the Paracel Islands.
“If we want to contain the risk of conflict, we must defend this right, and defend it ourselves,” Le Drian noted on Sunday, referring to the freedom of the seas. Le Drian justified France’s concern over this issue in the South China Sea by suggesting that the erosion of this norm there could lead to deleterious outcomes in the Arctic and the Mediterranean, areas more proximal to French shores.
“Several times per year, French navy ships cross the waters of this region, and they’ll continue to do it,” Le Drian noted, somewhat echoing language used by U.S. Defense Minister Ashton Carter, who has regularly insisted that the U.S. Navy would continue to freely transit the South China Sea.
“This is a message that France will continue to be present at international forums,” Le Drian said. “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.”
According to a senior French official who spoke to Bloomberg, France would ideally like to see a year-long European Union presence in the South China Sea, borne of greater intra-EU coordination.
To date, the European Union, while an interested party in the South China Sea, has played a limited role in the South China Sea disputes, mostly urging claimant parties, which includes China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, and Taiwan, to resolve their differences peacefully.
France, along with its fellow European G7 members, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy, has signed on G7 statements on maritime security and freedom of navigation. Most recently, at this year’s G7 Summit hosted in Ise-Shima Japan, the group noted that it was “concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas, and emphasize the fundamental importance of peaceful management and settlement of disputes.”
The Chinese foreign ministry criticized the statement, noting that it exaggerated tensions and “is not beneficial to stability in the South China Sea.”