By David Roman
(Bloomberg) — France will urge European Union nations to coordinate navy patrols to ensure a “regular and visible” presence in the disputed South China Sea, in the latest sign of international push back to China’s expanded military clout in the area.
The French government views the protection of freedom of the seas as critical from an economic standpoint and is concerned that a loss of such rights in the South China Sea may lead to similar problems in the Arctic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told attendees at a global defense forum, including top Chinese officials.
“If we want to contain the risk of conflict, we must defend this right, and defend it ourselves,” Le Drian said on Sunday at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore.
He said so far this year, France’s navy has been deployed three times through parts of the South China Sea. “Several times per year, French navy ships cross the waters of this region, and they’ll continue to do it.”
European nations have previously urged claimant states in the South China Sea — China, Taiwan and some Southeast Asian nations — to resolve their disputes peacefully, while calling for the continuation of free navigation through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Still, there has not so far been a major boost in the military presence from Europe. At the same time, China is increasing its navy and aerial patrols of the South China Sea and installing defense infrastructure on some reclaimed reefs, amid a broader focus on long-range military capacity in the western Pacific.
“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.”
Le Drian said he regretted that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had not made substantial progress toward a code of conduct with China on the South China Sea.
Speaking at the same forum Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said China risked erecting a “Great Wall of self-isolation” in Asia over its actions, and called China’s land reclamation in the area “unprecedented.”
A senior French official who traveled with the minister said the country will discuss plans with EU partners in coming weeks, with a focus on guaranteeing that EU navies regularly crisscross the waters.
With countries such as the U.K. and Netherlands sending ships to the area from time to time, France is interested in better coordinating patrols to ensure there is no long gap without an EU presence in the area, according to the official, who asked not to be identified, citing policy.
Another possibility, the official said, is smaller EU navies or those currently less engaged in the area may send ships that would be integrated in French task forces to minimize supply difficulties.
© 2016 Bloomberg L.P