France wades into the South China Sea with a nuclear attack submarine

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The French nuclear attack submarine SNA Emeraude recently conducted a patrol in the South China Sea, Defence Minister Florence Parly announced this week, sparking questions over the timing and tensions in Asia’s hotly contested waters.

The week in France kicked off with a Twitter thread by Defence Minister Florence Parly revealing that French nuclear attack submarine SNA Emeraude was among two navy ships that recently conducted a patrol through the South China Sea.

"This extraordinary patrol has just completed a passage in the South China Sea. A striking proof of our French Navy's capacity to deploy far away and for a long time together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners," she tweeted along with a picture of the two vessels at sea.

‘Indo-Pacific zone’ from Gulf of Aden to beyond Australia

The SNA Emeraude, accompanied by a support vessel, set sail 15,000 km off the French coast as part of the Marianne mission which, since September 2020, has consisted of patrolling the Indo-Pacific zone to "show that we are still present there militarily", said Jean-Vincent Brisset, research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris) and a China specialist, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

"It was an old promise made by Jean-Yves Le Drian when he was still defence minister,” explained Brisset. Le Drian, France’s current foreign minister, was defence minister from 2012 to 2017.

China lays claim to nearly all of the South China Sea while Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all also claim parts of the region, believed to hold valuable oil and gas deposits.

Beijing’s claims are disputed by the US and several European and Asian countries. The US mission to the UN last year formally submitted a note verbale — a diplomatic communication — to the UN Secretary-General’s office arguing that China’s maritime claims in the disputed South China Sea were “inconsistent with international law". In January, Japan, a major Asian power, joined a growing list of countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, in making similar submissions to the UN.

In this increasingly tense maritime geopolitical context, France wants to restate that it has its own interests to look out for in the region. In 2019, the French defence ministry released a policy report, “France and Security in the Indo-Pacific” recalling that around 1.5 million French nationals live between Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and the overseas territory of French Polynesia. This means that Paris views its Indo-Pacific zone as stretching from the Gulf of Aden to beyond Australia.

But the South China Sea was not included in the report. "From a legal point of view, it is perfectly acceptable for the French navy, in the context of its operations around the globe, to sail there," noted Antoine Bondaz, a research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research and aa Asia specialist.

A return to the South China Sea

In geopolitical terms, given the patchwork of competing territorial claims, the South China Sea is not a zone to dive a nuclear submarine into without strategic reflection.

In April 2019, China accused France of making an “illegal” entry into “Chinese waters” after the French frigate Vendémiaire sailed through the Taiwan Strait. Paris maintained its navy had been transiting the Taiwan Strait at least once a year without any problem or reaction from Beijing and reaffirmed France’s “commitment to freedom of navigation in accordance with the law of the sea”.

Barely two years later, France returned to the region, this time with a nuclear attack submarine. "It's a stronger signal than a surveillance frigate," said Jean-Dominique Merchet, defence correspondent for L'Opinion, on the French newspaper’s website. "In the global context of diplomatic relations, this is a way for France to show that it is not afraid of the balance of power with China," said Brisset.

France is thus trying to establish itself as a guarantor of the right to navigate freely in international waters. "It's a way of telling our Australian, Indian and Japanese partners that we're not just making fine speeches. France will only have credibility in the region if it shows that it is ready to act to defend its principles," explained Bondaz.

No response from Beijing

For now, Paris appears to have pulled off a coup, since Beijing has not officially reacted to the presence of the SNA Emeraude. "Beijing had to judge if the stakes were worth it," said Bondaz, noting that this type of submarine alone is not a serious threat. "Nor is it a submarine-launcher, in which case China would probably have made its voice heard," he explained.

What’s more, an official Chinese reaction "could have been counterproductive", said Bondaz. On the one hand, "Chinese public opinion could have the impression that Beijing does not exercise sufficient control over waters it claims," he explained. On the other hand, being too aggressive over the slightest passage of a ship that does not pose a particular military threat "would reinforce the impression among other countries that Beijing considers this area as a kind of inland sea", Bondaz said.

This would risk provoking an outcry, particularly in Europe – and China does not want to confront a united European front when it's locked in a geopolitical arm wrestling match with the US.

It remains to be seen how long Beijing will remain silent. Defence Minister Parly stressed that France intends to conduct patrols every year in the region. And in the next few weeks, Paris should deploy, as part of its Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) mission, "an amphibious group that should operate as far as Japan", said the Defence Ministry, when contacted by FRANCE 24. That, in short, is not far from the infamous South China Sea.

This article has been translated from the original in French