A French frigate docked at Cam Ranh Port in Vietnam this week, the latest sign that foreign powers are pushing back against China’s assertive behavior and expansive claims in the South China Sea.
In February, France’s defense minister announced that a French nuclear attack submarine and an accompanying support ship had completed a patrol in the South China Sea, and U.S. forces have repeatedly conducted “freedom of navigation operations” and other maneuvers in the contested waters since the start of the year.
The French frigate came to Cam Ranh Port on Tuesday for helicopter repairs, VnExpress reported. The French ambassador to Vietnam said that “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,” according to VnExpress.
Naval assets from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany are scheduled to transit the area later in 2021. It is home to a series of overlapping maritime and territorial claims among China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
Such foreign military operations are often met with criticism from Beijing. After the U.S. sailed a carrier group into the South China Sea for exercises in January, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that “it does no good to regional peace and stability for the United States to frequently send military vessels and aircraft to the South China Sea to show off muscles.”
In response to assertive moves from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), non-claimant states are increasing their own involvement in the South China Sea disputes through a range of diplomatic and military means.
Japan, for example, raised the issue with India earlier this week. During a call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide “expressed serious concerns regarding unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Sea” as well “China’s Coast Guard Law,” Japan’s foreign ministry said.
Similarly, during bilateral security discussions last week, Japan and the United States “reiterated their strong opposition to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China Seas, exchanging views and sharing their deep concerns over the PRC’s Coast Guard Law,” according to the U.S. State Department.
China’s new coastguard law, which authorized the China Coast Guard to use force to defend the PRC’s expansive maritime claims, has generated backlash both regionally and internationally, RFA has reported.
In January, Japan joined Malaysia, France, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, the United States, Vietnam, and other countries in formally rejecting China’s maritime claims via a diplomatic note to the United Nations.
The U.S. government, which began deepening its involvement in the South China Sea around 2010, is welcoming increased attention from France, Japan, and other states.
Last week, Adm. Philip Davidson of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command stated that “one of the efforts that we have deliberately undertaken is to make sure that the international community understands that it’s not a U.S.-China issue in the South China Sea, it is the freedom of communication issue for the international community through that water.”
Davidson commended countries like Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, France, and Vietnam for their efforts, including participating in exercises and raising the South China Sea in multi-nation forums. “I’ve been very encouraged by the international community’s commitment to freedom of communication and their presence in the South China Sea,” Davidson said.
Likewise, after German officials confirmed earlier in March that a German frigate would pass through the South China Sea for the first time since 2002, an unnamed U.S. State Department spokesperson welcomed “Germany’s support for a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific,” Reuters reported.