France has deployed its Emeraude nuclear attack submarine to the South China Sea. Image: Twitter

In an unmistakable sign of the growing internationalization of the South China Sea disputes, France has just confirmed the deployment of a nuclear attack submarine and naval vessel to the hotly contested waters.

In a tweet earlier this week, France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly announced that the European power has deployed the nuclear attack submarine Émeraude along with naval support ship Seine to the maritime area to “affirm that international law is the only rule that is valid, whatever the sea where we sail.”

“This extraordinary patrol just completed its passage in the South China Sea,” declared the French defense chief following its unprecedented military maneuvers in Asian waters this week.

“This is striking proof of the capacity of our French Navy to deploy far away and for a long time, together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners,” she continued, emphasizing that France’s actions are part of a broader international effort to uphold international law in global sea lines of communications.

The move came just weeks into the administration of US President Joseph Biden, who has warned of a new era of “extreme competition” with China and emphasized the necessity for a joint response along with like-minded allies in Europe and Asia.

The growing involvement of international powers from the Indo-Pacific and beyond also belies Beijing’s persistent claim that maritime tensions in Asia are caused solely by US overreach. 

French Defense Minister Florence Parly leaves the Elysee Presidential Palace after a weekly cabinet meeting on January 6, 2021 in Paris. Photo: AFP/Ludovic Marin

France’s naval deployment coincided with the first dual-carrier freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea by the new US administration, signaling less than a month in office growing international cooperation to rein in Chinese ambitions in adjacent waters.

America’s deployment of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group to the disputed waters was the first of its kind in almost six months, “to demonstrate the US Navy’s ability to operate in challenging environments,” according to a statement by the US Navy.

“Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Rear Admiral Doug Verissimo, commander of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group.

Other European powers such as the United Kingdom and Germany are also expected to deploy warships to the area in what increasingly looks like a concerted Western pushback against China’s maritime ambitions.

The recent naval deployment was just the latest instance of French muscle-flexing in Asian waters, a move that is bound to spark China’s ire. Back in 2019, the French frigate Vendémiaire conducted an unprecedented freedom of navigation operation in the Taiwan Strait amid rising tensions between China and Taiwan.

In response, an enraged Beijing unceremoniously disinvited the French delegation from taking part in the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the port city of Qingdao.

The French frigate Vendemiaire approaches the Klong Toey port in Thailand. Photo: AFP Forum/Pattarapong†Chatpattarasil

At the time, a source close to the PLA told the South China Morning Post that “[s]uch a passage embarrassed Beijing. So, we advised them [France’s navy] not to send the warship to the parade, though a delegation would still be welcomed.”

In response, the French Defense Ministry said it was “in close contact with the Chinese authorities” about the incident while reiterating its commitment to upholding rule of law across the Indo-Pacific.

“The navy passes on average once a year in the Taiwan Strait without incident or reaction,” said the French defense ministry, portraying its naval deployments to the area as routine and consistent with international law.

Similar to the UK, which has territorial as well as strategic interests in the region and is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, France has consistently maintained that it’s a “resident power” in the Indo-Pacific.

In its Indo-Pacific Strategy paper, titled “French Strategy in the Indo-Pacific for an inclusive Indo-Pacific”, Paris calls for “a stable, multipolar order based on the rule of law and free movement, and fair and efficient multilateralism.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has adopted a proactive regional diplomacy by expanding defense and economic ties with like-minded powers such as Australia and India as part of a broader “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” vis-à-vis China.

In another unprecedented move, France spearheaded a joint note verbale with the UK and Germany to the United Nations last year, where the three European powers categorically criticized China’s maritime and territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea, which “do not comply with international law.”

“France, Germany and the United Kingdom underline the importance of unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas, in particular the freedom of navigation and overflight, and of the right of innocent passage…in the South China Sea,” said the joint statement by the three powers, which called firmly on China to comply with prevailing international law.

A French naval officer in front of the Vendémiaire frigate. Photo: Twitter

European powers’ growing involvement in regional geopolitics is consistent with the strategic priorities of the Biden administration, which has underscored its commitment to “working with our allies and partners” based “on the international rules of the road.” 

Authoritative studies also show that a growing European strategic footprint is broadly welcomed by China’s smaller neighbors, including among rival South China Sea claimants who are deeply worried about both Beijing’s aggressive intentions as well as a brewing Cold War in the region.

According to the latest “The State of Southeast Asia” survey, annually conducted by the Singapore-based Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEA), a think tank, European powers and Japan, “are the clear front-runners for ASEAN’s most favored and trusted strategic partners in the hedging game against US-China rivalry.”

A majority of respondents (51.0%), composed of elite policy-makers and strategists in Southeast Asia, rated the EU as a reliable partner and global champion of the rule of law. In contrast, mistrust towards China “is trending upwards” from 60.4% last year to 63.0% in 2021.

The Biden presidency, meanwhile, led to a whopping 18.0% jump in US’ trust ratings in the region according to the survey, a reflection of growing hopes Washington will reassert regional leadership in cooperation with allies and strategic partners. 

What’s increasingly clear is that Beijing is facing a concerted pushback over its aggressive behavior against smaller neighbors across international waters.