SINGAPORE, -- France has thrown its hat into the acrimonious South China Sea debate, calling for more European naval patrols in a contested waterway that is at the center of a growing dispute between China and the United States and its Asian allies.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking Sunday at a three-day security conference in Singapore, called on European navies to have a "regular and visible" presence in the region to uphold the law of the sea and freedom of navigation.
"If we want to contain the risk of conflict, we must defend this right, and defend it ourselves," he said.
Although the French defense minister did not explicitly call out China, his remarks amounted to thinly-veiled criticism of Beijing, which has aggressively pursued its territorial claims in the South China Sea with vast dredging work and construction of military facilities on artificial islands.
"If the law of the sea is not respected today in the South China Sea, it will be threatened tomorrow in the Arctic, in the Mediterranean, or elsewhere," Le Drian told the security conference, known as the Shangri-La dialogue and hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
France's stance marked the latest international pushback against China's tough tactics in the strategic waterway, where more than $5 trillion worth of goods pass through annually.
The Singapore conference gathered top defense officials and diplomats from the region and beyond to hash through the security challenges facing Asia, especially the increasingly bitter spat over China's claims to nearly the entire South China Sea. Beijing defended its policy at the forum and accused Washington of meddling in the region. But China was the target for indirect criticism from other countries, and U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter issued a stark warning to Beijing in a speech at the conference.
China would face unspecified U.S. "actions" if it tried to reclaim land at the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines, Carter said Saturday.
And on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking ahead of a major summit this week with Beijing on economic and security issues, admonished China to avoid declaring an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. Doing so, he said, would be "a provocative and destabilizing act."
Since it started pressing its claims to little reefs and rocks, and feuding with other countries over fishing rights, Beijing has sought to keep the argument from being "internationalized," preferring to deal with its smaller neighbors on a one-to-one basis. China has regularly worked to keep the South China Sea disputes off the agenda at biannual meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes many of the countries with which Beijing is butting heads, especially the Philippines and Vietnam.
But China's intransigence on sovereignty and territorial issues, coupled with an increasingly aggressive deployment of muscled-up coast guard ships, a rapidly modernizing navy, and a building spree on reclaimed reefs, has driven many of those Southeast Asian countries closer to the United States. Washington, for example, just ended a ban on the sale of U.S. weapons to Vietnam, and has redoubled defense ties with the Philippines.
Other Asian countries are also worried about China's activities. Japan last year said it would consider carrying out naval patrols in the South China Sea, even though Tokyo and Beijing have their own heated dispute in the East China Sea. This year, India has become increasingly vocal about the challenge China poses to free navigation in the Western Pacific.
And now, with France's comments, even European nations are advocating a more muscular response to Chinese encroachment. For France and Europe, said Le Drian, it's not just about protecting economic and trade interests in the region. It's also about upholding the international order and rule of law.
Le Drian said he would soon provide more details on his proposal for regular patrols by European navies.
The timing of the French defense minister's remarks was no accident. An international court in The Hague is due to rule this month on a long-running dispute between China and the Philippines, and Beijing has rejected the tribunal's authority while lobbying other governments to back its view. The Permanent Court of Arbitration is expected to rule against China, and Washington has been calling on Beijing to abide by the results of the decision.
"More EU involvement in the South China Sea is something the United States has hoped to see for quite a while now," Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told FP.
"The timing of the French call may also mean that we see European Union governments come out in vocal support of the Hague decision in a few weeks," she said.
France's involvement in the Asia-Pacific region hasn't been purely theoretical. It inked a $40 billion deal last year to sell advanced submarines to Australia, citing increased fears over the region's security, and called for a greater French presence around its colonial possessions in the southern Pacific.
Le Drian's words over the weekend also offer a reminder that, while China is trying to parlay its growing economic might in Europe into diplomatic dividends, some European heavyweights are still ready to push back against Beijing.
Chinese leaders want to overcome what they call a "century of humiliation," which started with European naval imperialism in the Opium Wars of the 19th century and lasted through the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. But ironically, their actions appear to be forcing European gunboats to again steam for the South China Sea.
The French Navy Ships Tonnerre, Georges Leygues refuels.