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The French nuclear attack submarine Émeraude and naval support ship Seine have sailed through the South China Sea, according to a tweet by France’s defence minister. Photo: Twitter

South China Sea: challenge to Beijing as French nuclear submarine patrols contested waterway

  • Defence minister says France has exclusive economic zones in the Indo-Pacific that it intends to protect
  • Manoeuvre by submarine and support ship is proof French navy can deploy with allies for long periods far from home, Florence Parly says
A French submarine carried out a patrol through the South China Sea as part of efforts by France to challenge Beijing’s sweeping claims in the disputed waters.

France’s defence minister Florence Parly tweeted late on Monday that the French nuclear attack submarine Émeraude and naval support ship Seine sailed through the contentious waters 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,” she wrote. “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.”

French defence minister Florence Parly. Photo: AFP
Parly added that France had exclusive economic zones in the Indo-Pacific region, and intended to protect its sovereignty and interests there.

France has carried out several freedom of navigation operations in the energy-rich South China Sea in the past, joining countries such as Britain and the United States in pushing back against China’s growing dominance in and militarisation of the region. Beijing has overlapping territorial claims in the waters with several neighbours, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

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In September last year, France, Germany and Britain issued a joint statement to the United Nations in favour of the 2016 international tribunal ruling against most of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. The three countries said Beijing’s claims to “historic rights” in the waters did not comply with international law.
Parly said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2019 that Paris would continue to sail in the South China Sea more than twice a year and urged other like-minded countries to follow to maintain open access in the waters.

Beijing has long protested against the presence of foreign warships near the South China Sea, and claimed that France recognised China’s sovereignty in the waters, including over the Spratly Islands. The islands, which China calls the Nansha Islands, were once occupied by France.

The Chinese foreign ministry and defence ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on France’s latest operation.

Pacific nations’ rift stokes fears of China’s chance to expand influence

Last Friday, the US sailed the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea after passing through the Taiwan Strait. The US Navy said the operation, the first under US President Joe Biden, was part of efforts to challenge “excessive maritime claims around the world, regardless of the identity of the claimant”.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theatre Command claimed it drove the US warship away from the disputed islands with a warning, and described the move as the US’ “usual tactic of ‘mixed manipulation’ combined with navigational hegemony and misleading public opinion”.