South China Sea : fight for the freedom of navigation in the Far East

(B2) The naval incident between France and China in early April reminds us of how difficult navigating in Southeast Asia has become. As Beijing is asserting more and more aggressively its authority on strategic and contested territories, the European Union remains discreet. In the Far East, French and British navies continue to have their warships circulate according to international law… Risking to enter conflicting relations with the Chinese sailors

The Vendémiaire frigate, already posted in the South China Sea, in April 2016. Then maneuvering with the American aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (credit : US Navy)

France and the Chinese armies

A frigate intercepted

Tensions with China are back in the news in France as Reuters revealed a significant incident on April 7. The French frigate Vendémiaire (F-734) was controlled by Chinese ships as it crossed the Taiwan Strait. Beijing has denounced, in words of Colonel and military spokesman Ren Guoqiang, an “illegal crossing” of what is considered Chinese waters.

Naval strategy

France remained rather discreet about this affair, which would have resulted in a retaliatory measure, namely the cancellation of an invitation to participate in the April 23rd naval parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army. Paris paying attention to not offending Beijing too much, no official statement was issued. Behind the scenes, both in the cabinet of the French Minister of Armies, Florence Parly, and in the army ranks, it is however recalled that France is only trying to have the freedom of maritime circulation respected. These maneuvers have become a regular occurence since 2018, with the Navy regularly having its vessels circulate in or near disputed waters in the South China Sea, and from now on, in the Taiwan Strait.

Aerial dimension

In August 2018, the Chief of Staff of the French Army had also considered a similar maneuver with air forces visiting several partner countries in the region (Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, India). Indeed, China applies the same constraints in the air and on the seas. The pilots had suggested to fly their Rafale in the disputed space. Two options were drafted in the Elysée: the first implied to cross frankly the territory claimed by the Chinese, the second to skim past it. The French embassy in China had, according to the French general commanding the operation, pleaded for a clear message to be send. But the presidency finally refused both initiatives, to avoid tensions with Beijing who had already anticipated by officially expressing its concern to the Foreign Ministry.

Mobilise the Europeans

If France, especially through its navy, has increased its presence in these regions, it seeks to convince the Europeans of this political and legal crisis’ importance. Regularly and in the greatest discretion, observers are invited aboard French vessels. This was the case, for example, during the passage of the Jeanne d’Arc mission dedicated to the training of French Navy’s officers in 2018. Five « politico-military officials » from EU countries and the European Service for external action (EEAS) were present. The Navy refused to disclose their nationalities. They had been able to witness the close surveillance exercised by the Chinese as soon as the French approached the disputed waters.

Europeans remain discreet in the Asian Southeast

Very aggressive Americans

On the 29th of September 2018, the regular circulation of US ships in the region had gave way to a heated exchange. The Chinese destroyer Lanzhou had positioned itself in the axis of the USS Decatur and warned it : « If you do not change direction, you will suffer the consequences. » These skirmishes have become recurrent and are the subject, on both sides, of a well-honed procedure. The US Navy went as far as to invite in August 2018 a television crew to report of on one of these maneuvres aboard of a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. CNN was thus able to film the pilote responding through its radio to Chinese hunters that message that Washington keeps on repeating : « We are a US Navy aircraft pursuing legal American activities outside of the limits of any state, according to the rights guaranteed by international laws ».

Close contacts for the UK

Beside the Americans – by far the most offensive on this matter – and the French, the British have undertaken similar maneuvres. The UK is the only other European country to impose its freedom of navigation in this region. In September 2018, the HMS Albion, well before the French Vendémiaire, had already been confronted to the « aggressive » approach of a Chinese ship, which had come to control it in the South China Sea.

What about the other Europeans ?

Europeans have long struggled to position themselves towards Beijing on these issues. In 2016, despite the hesitations from the Greeks, Hungarians, Croatians and Slovenes, the EU had recalled for the first time « the fundamental importance to respect the rights and duties outlined in the Convention [on the Law of the Sea], notably the freedom of navigation and overflight ». Yet in 2012, the then High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Catherine Ashton had signed an agreement of political and security cooperation with the US for the Asia-Pacific region. Thus officialising the EU’s interest in Asian affairs. But what the EU has shown so far is a willingness to spare China while putting itself forward as a mediator for neighbours who also wish to avoid confrontation.

Strategic issues

How to explain China’s position ?

The problem concerns two specific areas : the Strait of Taiwan, part of the archipelago which independence is not recognized by Beijing ; and a series of islands in the South China Sea which ownership is contested by various countries (Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei)… Or built from scratch by the Chinese. Highly strategic areas due to the intense maritime transit that circulates there. As early as 1947, China began to claim an increasing number of territories, up to 90% of the 3.6 million square meters that represents the China Sea. Claims that have become more assertive and partly militarized since 2012, even if the worst tragedy remains the destruction of two Vietnamese ships by the Chinese in 1988, killing the lives of 68 of their soldiers.

What does the international law says ?

The UN assumes that, according to its Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), freedom of navigation is guaranteed in international waters. A document that China has even ratified. But the problem stems from the fact that this agreement, so-called Montego Bay or Unclos III, entered into force only in 1994. It does not resolve the numerous territorial conflicts on disputed spaces.

A debate closer than we imagine

From Brussels perspective, this legal wrestling may seem very distant. But Beijing tends to use it according to what suits it, depending on the situation, sometimes pressuring certain member States. Hence, in April 2018, the Chinese navy did not hesitate to have three ships cross the Channel to join in Russian military exercises. Invited to King’s College London, Colonel Zhou Bo, a recurrent spokesperson for Chinese forces, was questioned about this ambiguous attitude. His answer, reported by the Berlin Policy Journal, is pragmatic: « China obeys British rules in British waters, so the United Kingdom should obey Chinese rules in Chinese waters. » Understand that the Europeans may well let circulate the ships they want in their own waters, but in the East, it is up to Beijing to decide the right that applies.

What is at stakes for the Europeans ?

Beyond purely military and legal issues, the stakes are also economic for Europeans. The 28 of them, they represent the largest investors in Asia and particularly in China, where the figure has doubled in 2014 to reach 16 billion euros of investments. A crisis that would escalate into armed confrontation would have direct consequences for all European economies.

(Romain Mielcarek)

Rédaction de B2

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