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French, British Ships to Sail Disputed Asian Sea, Rile China

A French Navy Captain looks at the French Navy frigate Montcalm arriving at the naval base in Toulon, France, Aug. 1, 2014. French and British warships will sail the South China Sea in a display of naval strength.

British and French warships will sail to the disputed South China Sea in a display of naval strength that may satisfy domestic audiences but ruffle the waterway’s major stakeholder, China, and lead to more militarization, analysts say.

Vessels from the two European naval powers, which have no South China Sea claims of their own, will use the event to justify military spending at home, experts say. Their voyage would also prove the mettle of French defense technology and help the United States keep the sea open internationally, despite China’s increasing control.

A proposed passage through the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea was announced in early June at a Shangri-La Dialogue military leadership event attended by French Defense Minister Florence Parly and her British counterpart Gavin Williamson.

“Legally they are entitled to the right of innocent passage in the South China Sea, but politically and strategically they are complicating the situation and assisting the U.S. to conduct a counter-strategy towards Beijing’s assertive posture in the area,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duncan is seen during a port visit in Istanbul, Feb. 19, 2018.
British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duncan is seen during a port visit in Istanbul, Feb. 19, 2018.

Domestic concerns

The two European countries, which once had colonies around the world, want to show their own populations what their militaries can do following defense spending increases, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“The British and French governments continue to justify their defense budgets,” Chong said. “Great powers in the second rank, i.e. Britain and France, they will be increasingly challenged to justify their heavy defense spending.”

The British defense budget was $46.8 billion (35.3 billion pounds) in 2016, No. 5 in the world, according to the country’s defense ministry website. The government, it said, is “committed to increase defense spending” by at least 0.5 percent.

France plans to spend $361 billion on defense from 2019 to 2025, up 55 percent from the 2014-2018 budget period. France is also the world’s third biggest arms supplier, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says.

France will use the South China Sea mission to prove the worth of its hardware, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

South China Sea Territorial Claims
South China Sea Territorial Claims

An Asian dispute

Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam call all or parts of the South China Sea their own. The sea stretching from Hong Kong to Borneo is valued for its fisheries and reserves of oil and natural gas.

China has landfilled some of the sea’s 500 tiny islets over the past decade, some for military use, to bolster control over its claim to about 90 percent of the sea, irritating the other five parties. It negotiates privately with the Southeast Asian claimants, sometimes offering economic aid to keep peace.

China pledged $24 billion in aid and investment to the Philippines in 2016, for example.

Philippine officials will probably say nothing about the British and French ships, said Herman Kraft, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman in Metro Manila.

“The thing with the Philippines is that they’re not going to criticize the Chinese,” he said. “My suspicion is they’ll just keep quiet on this thing.”

But the United States has taken the dispute past Asia by sending naval ships to the sea seven times since President Donald Trump took office in 2017. Those missions are aimed at opposing Beijing’s maritime control.

France and the United Kingdom may be stepping in to help their traditional military ally the United States, experts say. Both European countries have sailed there before.

“Britain sees it as important to challenge excessive Chinese maritime claims under (U.N. maritime law),” said James Berkeley, managing director of the advisory firm Ellice Consulting in London. “If left unchallenged China might reasonably argue that the world consensus agrees with their views.”

Britain’s maritime effort may earn it help from abroad later on trade and economic issues of domestic concern, Berkeley added.

Chinese reaction

China will protest the European ships with a statement and, eventually, more militarization at sea, analysts expect.

“Beijing can shadow the ships and follow the French vessels and tell them to leave the waters, and then they can file a diplomatic complaint in the aftermath, but it’s mostly just symbolic as opposed to like actually preventing it from happening,” Spangler said.

China, mindful of the 1890s when the U.K. demanded trade concessions in the wake of the opium wars, will feel it must take action, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.

“The Chinese cannot be seen to be standing idly by and let the British and the French do their thing,” he said. “The Chinese have a long history and they felt humiliated by the British in the opium war.”

China may take the incident as a cue to “strengthen the island defenses,” Araral said. “It’s not helping the situation in this part of the world,” he said.