28.05.2021 Author: Vladimir Terehov

France is Participating in Military Maneuvers in the East China Sea


The headline of this article would have been a surprise to the author himself even one year ago. Back then, an entirely expected reaction would have been something like, “This can’t be because this could never happen.” It turns out that it can, and is right now.

This once again illustrates the extremely high level of unpredictability inherent in the ongoing process of reformatting the global political map that began after the end of the Cold War. Which (the unpredictability) nullifies the significance of any forecast estimates, even for the near future. It would be nice to at least gain an understanding of why what has happened “here and now” actually occurred, without aspiring to something greater.

But even this (outwardly simple) task is perplexing, because the motivation for France to join an action that patently has a completely anti-Chinese thrust is still not quite clear. And this despite the fact that the motives for participation in the maneuvers that began on May 11 on the part of two other countries, Japan and the United States, are more or less obvious (Australia joined them a week later).

Japan is the principal participant in them. It simply cannot be otherwise, since over the course of these exercises mostly “Japanese” challenges are being addressed. Six out of the ten warships that make up the international naval group are Japanese. Most of the ground units with the land forces, and the combat aviation units, were also provided by Japan.

Being active, in this case, is presented by Tokyo as a reaction to the recent uptick in the scale of military demonstrations by PLA units (its Navy, Air Force, and airborne forces) and its coast guard vessels. And this encompasses those areas of the East China Sea that Japan sees as having particularly important meaning in terms of supporting its national interests and security.

These zones mostly include the so-called “remote islands”, meaning the southern part of the Ryukyu Archipelago and, above all else, the five uninhabited Senkaku islands, which the PRC lays claim to and calls Diaoyu Islands. The recent aggravation of the situation that surrounds the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is one of the main reasons for the difficulties that abound in the political sphere of Japanese-Chinese relations.

The more or less constant US military activity in the entire maritime area stretching from north to southwest that lies adjacent to the Chinese coast is also explainable. Ultimately, this means a comprehensive (which includes the military sphere) confrontation between the two main participants in the current stage of the “Great World Game”. In the exercises under discussion, Washington is participating as Japan’s key ally, which has certain security problems.

But why should these problems be of any concern to France, which is not formally bound by any obligations to Tokyo that is located on the other side of the globe from the above-mentioned “zones”, as well as the specific place these exercises are taking place?

There are many and various problematic spots throughout the world. Even the leading world power (long before the Trump administration came to power) has shown no desire to interfere in every single one of them, leaving only those that are considered by Washington to be the most significant from the standpoint of ensuring its national interests.

However, today’s France, which remains among the important participants in the global political game, is still not a contender for a leading role in it. Its activity in Africa (primarily in the north) and in the Greater Middle East can be explained to some degree. But how has France lost its way in the southern and eastern regions of Asia?

The center of the world game is indeed shifting to the Indo-Pacific region. But this is a cause for concern on the part of both local significant players and the two leading world powers, meaning the United States and China.

Why is France absolutely clearly leaning toward one of the parties involved in the relations between the two Asian giants, India and China, which are taking on greater importance? Why does it keep poking at what is an extremely sore spot for Beijing concerning the issue of Taiwan? Finally, why this latest anti-Chinese demonstration with direct participation by the French armed forces?

Along with that, Beijing is seemingly not giving Paris any justification to cast a scowl in its direction. And yes, in Africa – a place that is extremely important for France – China is a leading player nowadays. But its main tool for gaining popularity among the elites and the general public in African countries is providing services that help them address their own fundamental challenges. To a substantial degree, this stems from the previous period when the “white man” reigned supreme, who has carried a heavy “burden” here.

It is unlikely that Africa would object if the latter offers it an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. But so far nothing is on the horizon, except for highly unspecific words from the “white people” nowadays, including their most important representative. Who could, incidentally, be offended by labeling him as a “white man” today.

France is a member of the main political, economic, and military associations that link those same “white people” nowadays, which are NATO and the EU. And these are both looking at China (once again, for some unclear reason) with growing suspicion. But Paris has more than once demonstrated the priority it gives to its own interests over those held by its allies.

Therefore, let us assume that China can be a fairly concurrent element in the process of actualizing some of the fundamental systems on the European continent itself, going back for centuries. For example, those that are due to the extremely complex history of France’s relations with a country located not “in far away lands”, but right nearby, just across the narrow English Channel. Which has also begun to “veer away” into the Indo-Pacific as a whole, and particularly into India.

Furthermore, the beginnings of this “veering” in foreign policy for the United Kingdom took shape back in the summer of 2016, when the current Prime Minister B. Johnson was the country’s foreign minister. B. Johnson went to Australia a week before the historic (no quotation marks needed) referendum on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, which he supported. The then head of the UK Foreign Office made all sorts of statements designed to emphasize the need (after Brexit) to expand the country’s presence in the region’s affairs.

It is worth noting that at the same time, and almost right next door (specifically in Singapore on the occasion of participation in the next “Shangri-La Dialogue” forum) the then Minister of Defense and the current Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was present. Speaking to the participants of the forum, he called the presence of territories that belonged to France in the region as the main motive behind his country’s interest in the affairs occurring in the Indo-Pacific region. It is home to 1.6 million French citizens who are under the protection of a permanent contingent of French Armed Forces that total 8,000 troops. Among the countries with which Paris is ready to cooperate to ensure its own interests, “even Japan” was mentioned.

We will make two remarks on this. First, it is worth remembering that the territories designated by the speaker were acquired by France in fierce competition with the UK, and this battle was waged for several centuries.

Second, we should still admit that even five years ago there were some signs of what was described at the beginning of the article as almost impossible. Although all the same there are questions with many kinds of “why” and “what for”. In addition, plotting out its military presence in an area that is “customary” for France, the South China Sea, could have been expected. Incidentally, Jean-Yves Le Drian then went on a visit to Vietnam, an area “historically familiar” for France, where he received a very warm welcome. For obvious reasons, which have been discussed more than once in the NEO.

But why should France emphasize its implication in the problems involved in the East China Sea, where the prospect of a direct military confrontation between the two leading Asian powers looms? These territories so dear to France in the Indian and Pacific oceans are located at a distance of 10,000 kilometers from the East China Sea.

However, in the same speech by the current French foreign minister, some answers can be discerned to some of the questions that have been raised here. The main thing that worried him then (and, apparently, today) was associated with “China’s non-compliance” with international laws designed to ensure “stability” in the region. Incidentally, along with China Russia was noticed committing similar “violations” by the speaker. But just in another region.

Continuing to ask questions for which there are most likely no unambiguous answers, we should ask whether France’s participation in the above-mentioned exercises serves the purpose of opposing the UK for influence over Japan, which is one of the main players in the Indo-Pacific region. If yes, then London, which has its own history of relations with Tokyo, is not going to give up. In particular, joint exercises between a British aircraft carrier group and the Japanese Navy are planned for this summer, and apparently the US and Australia will also participate. “On the way” to the western part of the Pacific Ocean, this group will conduct exercises with the Indian Navy.

Due to all of the above, we should point out the rapidly growing problems inside both of these historical opponents themselves. It would be better to deal with them, and not continue battling historical shadows, while just bumping up against outside players.

Finally, it is worth noting that whatever the motives may be for anti-Chinese elements to emerge in France’s foreign policy, their validity and, most important, productivity for France itself are extremely doubtful.

Vladimir Terekhov, an expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.