France stirs up troubled waters 

China’s military could spark trouble if it builds on the Scarborough Shoal. Source: Wikimedia 

Talks in Singapore and Beijing in the last week have done little to reduce regional tensions with plenty more guarded threats and the arrival of the Europeans. 

France has spoken out on the South China Sea debate, calling for more European naval patrols in the waters but doing little to resolve the dispute.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore that European navies should have a “regular and visible” force in the region to uphold the law of the sea and freedom of navigation.

Clearly not content with the European migrant crisis, an increasingly assertive Russia and the threat of Islamist extremism, Paris appears keen to add the South China Sea to its to-do list. Le Drian said it was about upholding international order and rule of law.

“If we want to contain the risk of conflict, we must defend this right and defend it ourselves,” Le Drian told the conference hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

His remarks were seen as criticism of Chinese territorial claims 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 said.

The event gathered defence leaders and diplomats to discuss the security challenges facing Asia, with the Chinese delegation accusing the US of meddling in the region. This came after Defence Secretary Ashton Carter warned China in a speech at the conference.

US “actions” could result if China tried to reclaim land at the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines, Carter told the event and later US Secretary of State John Kerry criticised China’s air-defence identification zone in the region. He said it was a “provocative and destabilising act”.

“Our position is very clear with respect to maritime law,” Kerry said later in Beijing. “We want the traditional historic freedom of navigation and over flight to be respected; China has said it will be respected.

“We do have some differences but [we]… professionally, respectfully, I think, thoughtfully articulate those differences and agreed on ways in which we can try to find progress,” he added.

Beijing has tried to keep the dispute off the international agenda, insisting that disputes are settled bilaterally, rather than discussed by regional bodies like Asean that might challenge China’s suzerainty.

Analysts fear China could soon build on the Scarborough Shoal, which it snatched from the Philippines in 2012, with the US warning that it would “take action”, whatever that means.

This week’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing between the US and China, where Kerry represented the American delegation, appear to have resulted in nothing substantial about the South China Sea.

After meeting Kerry, China’s President Xi Jinping said: “The key is to always bear in mind that our common interests outnumber our differences. So we need to respect each other’s core interests and major concerns and on that basis, try to work together to seek solutions to the differences.”

This statement is so bland it is almost meaningless, but the reference to “core interests” might be a reference to the fact that China has a long coastline facing the sea while the US is on the other side of the Pacific. Beijing doubtless sees the South China Sea as a “core interest”.

The US just ended a ban on the sale of its weaponry to Vietnam and has deepened military cooperation with the Philippines.

Tokyo, which has a parallel dispute with Beijing over the East China Sea, last year said it was considering carrying out naval patrols in the South China Sea. India is becoming increasingly vocal about the challenge China poses to free navigation.

The international Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is due to decide this month on the dispute between China and the Philippines, although the Chinese have already rejected the ruling.

“More EU involvement in the South China Sea is something the United States has hoped to see for quite a while now,” opined Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Centre for a New American Security. “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.”

In 2015 France signed a US$40-billion submarine deal with Australia and has called for an increased naval presence around its colonial islands in the southern Pacific.

Europeans have a long history in the region.

Beijing speaks of overcoming a “century of humiliation”, dating back to the 19th-century Opium Wars and the 1860 destruction of the summer palace by Anglo-French forces to the Japanese occupation until 1945.

Last week’s renewed European interest in the region will countless be unwelcome and may prove counterproductive for the nations, like Vietnam and the Philippines, at the sharp end of Chinese expansionism.