With its otherwise boring rocks and desolate sandbanks, the South China Sea is one of the most contested places on Earth. Assessments of a concoction of natural gas, oil, and rare minerals blended with international law, military strategy and nationalism make the Sea a crucible. Not to mention, feuds over the Sea’s most apparent resource — fish. After decades of engineering, the rocks, atolls and sandbanks now house military bases for regional powers.
Some have argued that France is the most likely European power to try and obstruct China’s expansionism given the country’s anchored history in the South China Sea. France has historically claimed sovereignty over the Spratlys in its own name; in the name of the protectorate Annam, France has claimed rights over Paracel islands. However, these claims were made with inconsistent determination. At times, French decision-makers basically rendered the territories as not worth the trouble, even though the French had some meteorological and commercial stakes.
France’s historical claim to the territories is precisely that: history. France has de facto abandoned these claims since the early 1950s. Still, France’s geopolitical interests remain anchored in the South China Sea. France is still a resident power in the Indo-Pacific broadly, where 1.5 million nationals live. It was on May 3, 2018 during a speech at Australia’s Garden Island military base that President Emmanuel Macron first labelled France as an “Indo-Pacific power”; but the country has been a consistent player in the region even though the term “Indo-Pacific” is newly adopted.
Talk of an increased French naval presence in the South China Sea gained traction when at the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue the then French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for European navies to have a coordinated “regular and visible presence” in the “maritime areas of Asia.” At the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, Defense Minister Florence Parly declared: “We will continue to sail more than twice a year in the South China Sea. There will be objections, there will be dubious manoeuvres at sea, but we will not be intimated into accepting any fait accompli, because what international law condemns, how could we condone?” China’s maritime militia and island-building campaigns are rejuvenating France’s activity in the South China Sea. In the first half of 2021 France has conducted several naval operations.
In February 2021, the nuclear attack submarine SNA Emeraude, along with the support ship BSAM Seine, conducted patrols in the Sea. Parly said: “This extraordinary patrol has just completed a passage in the South China Sea. A striking proof of the capacity of our French Navy to deploy far away and for a long time together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners.” The submarine then joined three Indonesian warships to participate in naval exercises in the nearby Sunda Strait; Indonesia is an emerging defence partner for France and in dispute with China over the nine-dash line.
On March 9, the frigate Prairial docked at Cam Ranh Port. The French Ambassador to Vietnam stated: “The frigate’s visit at this time is meant to deliver a message in support of freedom of navigation in the air and at sea, which is shared by both Vietnam and France.”
In May, amphibious assault helicopter carrier FS Tonnerre and the frigate FS Surcouf took part in a joint transit of the Sea with two Australian ships. The ships had also made a port call to Vietnam at Cam Ranh Port and Haiphong (according to the plans from the French Ministry of Armed Forces). Tonnerre and Surcouf subsequently moved to join the quadrilateral Jeanne D’Arc 21 exercise between France, the United States, Japan and Australia at Naval Base Sasebo (East China Sea) from May 11 to May 16.
In 2019, the French Ministry of Armed Forces stated that its flagship aircraft carrier — and the only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier not in the US fleet — the Charles de Gaulle, would not be entering the South China Sea. In the future, we may wonder whether Paris will send the Charles de Gaulle. Such a move would be a level up for France. Fellow European great power, the UK, is already sending its flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea (there is a joke making its rounds that if the English venture to the Sea the French will follow, because, regardless of what China is up to the true nemesis of the French Navy will always be the English).
While it is undeniable that France has been active in the South China Sea in the first half of 2021, it is important not to “overhype” these naval operations. First, naval sailings do not really stop China or anyone else from expansionism in the South China Sea, although they do show a renewed resolve and strategic interest in the waterbody. Second, a country’s navy can be primarily used as a means of strengthening relations with friendly powers in the region like Indonesia. Third, the Chinese state has been relatively quiet on the 2021 French sailings, especially when compared to Beijing’s acerbic reactions to US FONOPs. France, like most Western countries, has mixed-messaging on China. Is there a trend of increased French naval activity in the South China Sea? Yes, but it is important not to overstate this development.
Jacob Benjamin holds an M.A. in political science from the University of Waterloo in Canada, with a research focus on Southeast Asian security strategies to the rise of China. He will be starting his Ph.D. in September at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. He tweets at @JacobE_Benjamin. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.