MANILA, Philippines – France and Britain announced they will sail through the South China Sea next week to join international efforts to stand up to China’s increasing aggressiveness in the disputed seas.
French minister of the armed forces Florence Parly and British defense minister Gavin Williamson made the announcement this week during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
It’s a significant development in the South China Sea dispute, experts told Rappler, noting how the Asian military superpower is increasingly isolating itself internationally.
US, Japan, India, and Australia have been sailing in the disputed seas to challenge China’s sweeping claims over important multi-billion-dollar international trade routes.
China claims sovereignty over the disputed waters. It issues radio warnings – if not outright challenges – against other claimants sailing or flying into their occupied areas and other nations exercising innocent passage.
‘China is alone’
Gregory Poling of US-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said increasing international cooperation “shows that China is alone in its desire to rewrite international maritime law.”
“The only way Beijing will recognize the costs of its excessive claims and coercive behavior is if the international community at large pushes back. This is an important step in that direction,” Poling said.
Euan Graham, director of the international security program of Australian think tank Lowy Institute, said it’s “good as a demonstration of will and capability to operate consistent with Freedom of Navigation and international law, regardless of China’s excessive claims and intimidation.”
France committed to sail 5 ships in the region last year, while Britain committed 3 this year, to work with allies in upholding international maritime law, deter nuclear proliferation in North Korea, and fight terrorism.
“It’s been a few years since a British warship was in Asia. Now, suddenly there’s 3,” Graham said.
‘We will sail forth’
French minister of the armed forces Florence Parly was unequivocal in pressing for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. She said the region will see how France and Britain are willing to project strength to uphold its values.
“Those who saw our joint strikes in Syria can testify. This, also, will become self-evident in this region, when you see our maritime task group with British helicopters, and indeed British ships in it, calling to port in Singapore next week and sailing together through certain areas,” Parly said.
“I mean, those areas where, at some point, a stern voice intrudes into the transponder, and tells us to sail away from supposedly territorial waters; but our commander then calmly replies that he will sail forth, because these, under international law, are indeed international waters,” Parly said.
The British defense minister was equally clear.
“Having heard that France commited 5 last year. I think I need to now commit 6,” Williamson teased in his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue this week.
“They will work closely with our friends and allies across the region – demonstrating our resolve, alongside our friends, to protect international rights and freedoms,” Williamson said.
Other European countries
Other European countries are poised to join France and Britain, too.
“Europeans have started to mobilize more widely in support of this endeavor. German observers have embarked on our ships too. I believe we should broaden this effort even further,” Parly said.
The two officials announced the joint activity in Singapore this week at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit.
The British Royal Navy ship anti-submarine warfare frigate HMS Sutherland was docked off the coast of the small city state, where Williamson hosted journalists after the summit.
The same warship is expected to join France in the South China Sea next week. – Rappler.com