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MANILA, Philippines – Looking to expand maritime cooperation, the Philippines and France discussed the possibility of conducting joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea and developing a submarine fleet for Manila.
Rear Admiral Jean-Mathieu Rey, joint commander of the French Armed Forces in the Asia-Pacific, said France suggested joint patrols in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“We propose common patrol in this area, for instance, patrolling together in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines…and if the Philippines will decide to deploy forces around New Caledonia, they will be welcome to operate with us,” Rey told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday, March 8, after completing a two-day working visit to Manila to meet Filipino military and defense officials.
He continued: “As I mentioned to my partner – and they agreed – we are stronger together. And against big competitors, it’s better to be two or more, able to react and able to give testimony and prove that we, the Philippine and the French forces, for example, stick together…against another big neighbor like the Chinese.”
Rey underscored the importance of such efforts in upholding international law, promoting multilateralism, and protecting the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. In recent years, France has placed increasing emphasis on its strategy toward the region, describing itself as a “country in the Indo-Pacific,” where it counts over 9 million square kilometers in its EEZ.
“This is a long-term commitment and we want to walk the talk, and we do it by having this presence here and we will continue to develop it,” French Ambassador to the Philippines Michèle Boccoz said.
Rey said Philippine officials welcomed France’s proposal on joint patrols and that for now, “it’s an open discussion.” Asked about the timeline being eyed for the conduct of patrols, Rey said no deadline was set and that both sides are “just starting the process.”
Experts on the Philippines’ dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea have repeatedly called on the government to conduct freedom of navigation operations with fellow Southeast Asian nations, as well as joint patrols with its partners like the United States and France.
However, President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to suspend joint patrols in waters beyond the Philippines’ territorial seas remains standing. Duterte had first mentioned his intention to stop joint maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea in 2016, even after the Philippines won its landmark case against China.
In August 2020, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana reiterated the President had a standing order that the military “should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea, except our national waters, the 12-mile distance from our shores.” Before Duterte ordered the ban, joint maritime patrols with the US were done in the West Philippine Sea in April 2016.
Submarine force eyed
France is also looking to aid the Philippines in training, setting up, and maintaining its first ever submarine force. Since 2018, the Philippine has expressed interest in submarines, with the two countries conducting subject matter exchanges and signing a nonbonding defense cooperation agreement later in 2020.
Boccoz said these were part of France’s efforts to take part in the Philippines’ plans to modernize its military. Funding remains a significant hurdle in modernization, including the potential acquisition of submarines.
“We are exploring also at the moment, and we’ve been exploring ever since I’ve arrived, how to answer the request that was made to us…on the modernization of the Philippine Army. Actually, it was even one of the priorities that President Duterte mentioned when I presented my credentials to him,” she said.
Meanwhile, Rey said the Philippines and France will also deepen cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief – a key concern for both countries. Rey said he invited Filipino soldiers to attend a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise in Bora Bora.
Capping Rey’s working visit to the Philippines, Boccoz expressed optimism that both countries will continue to deepen ties, including on the security and humanitarian front in the Indo-Pacific.
“We see that there is a strong willingness from both sides to see how to deepen our collaboration and cooperation in the future. And I think it was an extremely fruitful, in-depth exchange with projections on the future and what we want to do when we continue to move in time together,” she said. – Rappler.com