Philippines-France relations

French destroyer visits Manila as Paris eyes deeper security ties with PH

Bea Cupin

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French destroyer visits Manila as Paris eyes deeper security ties with PH

BRETAGNE. The French destroyer pays a port visit to Manila in early June 2024.

Bea Cupin/Rappler

Just weeks after a French frigate joins Balikatan, the destroyer Bretagne visits Manila with plans to hold a joint exercise with the Philippine Navy

MANILA, Philippines – The air was thick with humidity at Port 15 of the Manila South Harbor on Friday, May 31, as Captain Gwenegan Le Bourhis, commander of the French Navy’s Bretagne, toured media around the French destroyer.

“I’ll get used to it,” he joked, as he stepped back into the ship’s bridge.

French destroyer visits Manila as Paris eyes deeper security ties with PH

It’s not just brutal heat of Manila’s late afternoons that Le Bourhis, the rest of his crew, or other officers of France will need to come up to speed with. The European country, after all, is eyeing closer defense ties with the Philippines as it enters the preliminary stages of negotiations for a Status of the Visiting Forces Agreement, a deal that would pave the way for French soldiers to engage with their Filipino counterparts more often and more intimately.

In late May, Paris was host to the fourth meeting of the joint committee on cooperation and defense, confirmed French Ambassador to Manila Marie Fontanel. It may take time for such an agreement to finally be completed – Manila is in the final stages of talks with Japan for a similar deal called the Reciprocal Access Agreement, while Canada is also keen to jumpstart talks for a visiting forces agreement.

The Bretagne, the fifth in a series of eight destroyers commissioned into the French Navy in the last 10 years, is a vessel that is “capable of operating in all the spectrum of maritime operations,” according to Le Bourhis. It can engage submarines, track and engage with aircraft, and is decked with radars to detect long-range surface units.

“It’s quite a powerful ship that you are on back on today. And the idea there is really to show the commitments of the French Armed Forces and the French Navy in this region,” said Le Bourhis.

Drills with Philippine Navy

The French Navy Captain said they were in the Philippines not just to flex his country’s know-how and assets, but to learn from Filipino sailors, too.

“The Philippines already knows better the environment that I [do]. So I’m learning everyday in this area. Countries, including your Navy, already know the environments and by sharing together through administrative agreements, or through chats, interactions that we may have sailors to sailors, we are learning a lot in the contact of all our regional partners,” he added.

Le Bourhis said that during a courtesy call with the Philippine military, the Navy brought up a possible joint exercise or joint sail with the Bretagne. Its details have yet to be ironed out, with more concrete talks expected over the weekend up to Monday, June 3. The ship is scheduled to be docked at Pier 5 until Tuesday, June 4.

The scale of the drills, said the French Navy Captain, would likely be less than that of the Vendémiaire, a French frigate that participated in the recently-concluded Balikatan exercises. France joined the yearly US-Philippine military drill for the first time ever.

Manila has sought to expand its defense ties, even as it deepens existing ties with traditional partners like treaty ally the United States and strategic partners like Australia and Japan. The Philippines and its military are in the middle of its pivot to external defense and maritime security, after decades of focus on battling internal secessionists. Among the key concerns for Manila is China’s expansionist dreams, especially at sea. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.