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Western countries send warships to South China Sea, challenging China

February 25, 2021 | 14:40

US, Canada and other Western countries are sending navy ships to the contested South China Sea this year as pushback against Beijing, in order to challenge China's sovereignty claims over the region.

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The French frigate Surcouf is travelling to Japan. Photo: AFP

According to South China Morning Post, the French Navy said an amphibious assault ship the Tonnere and the frigate Surcouf had left their home port Toulon on Thursday and would travel to the Pacific on a three-month mission.

The website Naval News reported that the ships would cross the South China Sea twice and take part in a combined exercise with the Japanese and US militaries in May.

Capt Arnaud Tranchant, commanding officer of the Tonnerre, told Naval News that the French navy would "work to strengthen" France's partnership with the US, Japan, India and Australia - Quad.

When asked whether he was planning to transit the Taiwan Strait, he said he has "not yet traced our roads in this area".

Similar missions in 2015 and 2017 also saw French navy vessels sailing through the South China Sea, but analysts said the latest exercise is a sign of France stepping up engagement in the Indo Pacific region.

Last week, France deployed a nuclear attack submarine in the South China Sea, in line with US President Joe Biden's call to mount a multilateral challenge to China.

In a tweet earlier this week, France's Defense Minister Florence Parly announced that the European power has deployed the nuclear attack submarine Emeraude 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."

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.

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".

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Britian's HMS Queen Elizabeth, the aircraft carrier could face an encounter when it is deployed in the contested region. It will be escorted by two Type 45 destroyers, two Type 23 frigates, a nuclear submarine, a Tide-class tanker and RFA Fort Victoria. (Photo: The Sun)

On January, a Royal Canadian Navy warship sailed through Taiwan Strait—an approximately 160-km strip of water that separates Taiwan from China. The strait lies between the conflict-ridden South China Sea and the East China Sea. The Canadian ship's presence came at a time when tension was mounting in the region. China aggressively violated the Taiwanese air space forcing the island nation to scramble its jets often. China even flew its jets around Taiwan when senior US officials were on official visits to Taipei. The Chinese Navy too had been spying on Taiwan from international waters, close to where its defence forces tested their weapons, once again making the tiny nation send its ships to deal with Chinese infiltration.

On February 23, Britian's HMS Queen Elizabeth has been warned of a "greater risk of an incident" in the South China Sea as tensions in the contested waters skyrocket. The aircraft carrier could face an encounter when it is deployed in the contested region. It will be escorted by two Type 45 destroyers, two Type 23 frigates, a nuclear submarine, a Tide-class tanker and RFA Fort Victoria. China recently warned it would take the "necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty”, according to Telegraph UK.

These Western countries claim no sovereignty over the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, which lies more than a continent away from their own territorial waters. But they want to support the United States in resisting unilateral expansion by China, which has sparred with former European colonies and alarmed people in Western countries, scholars say.

According to VOA News, Western countries would resent that management of the sea if it goes against their former colonies or current economic interests in Asia such as access to the sea’s busy cargo shipping lanes, analysts add.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson eventually wants his country to take a stronger role in Asia due to economic and trade links in the region, University of New South Wales Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer said in an e-mailed briefing on Monday.

Former French colony Vietnam contests China’s maritime claim including the sea’s Paracel Islands. China controls the Paracel chain today. France still maintains “cultural” and “economic” ties with its former Southeast Asian colonies, Nagy said.

A Chinese survey vessel entered into standoffs in April 2020 with Malaysia and Vietnam. All three countries drill aggressively for oil and value the sea’s 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

French armed forces Minister Florence Parly tweeted on February 9 that the submarine made its voyage to “enrich our knowledge of this area and affirm that international law is the only rule that is valid, regardless of the sea where we sail.”

It further showed “striking proof of the capacity of our French Navy to deploy far away and for a long time in connection with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners,” she said.

Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan dispute parts of the sea too. Asian governments prize the waterway for its fisheries and undersea fossil fuel reserves. China has taken a lead in the dispute over the past decade by landfilling some of the tiny islets for military infrastructure.

Western countries with no claims in the sea have passed ships through as far back as the 1970s as the sovereignty dispute first came into focus. China cites historic usage records to back its activity in the sea despite a 2016 world arbitration court ruling that negated a legal basis for its claims.

Canada, Australia and Western European countries send ships as well to show support for the United States, which has dispatched destroyers to the sea twice this month following regular sailings in 2020, experts believe.

In France’s case, "they just might have notified the U.S. side, and that would be equal to using the submarine passage to indicate indirect support for the United States," said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

Citizens of countries far from Asia would support their missions in the Asian sea because they began paying more attention last year to China as the source of COVID-19, Nagy said. They’re noticing Chinese pressure on India and Taiwan as well as the militarily weaker South China Sea claimants, he said.

Western leaders hope to “create leverage” against China, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“One way of reading leverage is to ensure that Beijing takes European values and principles of sustaining free and open transit through international waters seriously,” Chong said.

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