The French “Jeanne d’Arc” naval task force, integrated by British personnel and units, is heading for East Asia and the South Pacific. Paris and London say this five-month deployment is aimed at improving maritime cooperation between their navies. In reality, it can be read as a new initiative by the two European countries to support the United States in its freedom of navigation operations in the region against China’s military activism.
France and Britain are busy stepping up their naval presence in the Indo-Pacific area. The annual Jeanne d’Arc training and patrol mission sees the Royal Navy’s participation for the second year in a row. The task group consists of the Mistral-class helicopter assault ship Dixmude and the La Fayette-class frigate Surcouf.
Two Royal Navy’s Wildcat helicopters contribute to the task force’s flying force, which also comprises two French Gazzelles and two Spanish Cougars. French Navy personnel are supported by 40 Royal Navy and Royal Marine troops, 50 US Marines and a small Spanish crew.
Another French naval group is returning home from a deployment in the Indian Ocean. The Mistral-class amphibious assault ship Tonnerreand the Horizon-class air defense destroyer Chevalier recently concluded drills with the US Navy off the coast of Djibouti as part of the “Bois Belleau 100” mission. Further, the French frigate Vendémiaire visited Japan and trained with the local navy last month. It also conducted joint exercises with US and Canadian naval vessels.
A British warship is also already embarked on an Indo-Pacific tour. The Royal Navy has its HMS Sutherland, a Type 23 anti-submarine frigate, stationed in Australia, where it will participate in the “Ocean Explorer” war game with the local fleet. It will sail into the South China Sea on its way back home. As well, the frigate HMS Argyll will be sent to East Asia to take part in joint exercises with the Japanese navy later in the year.
Cooperation with China’s rivals
The Jeanne d’Arc convoy fleet will sail as far east as New Caledonia and French Polynesia, two French overseas territories in the South Pacific. It will make port visits to Jakarta, Bali, Darwin, Saigon and Singapore, and train with regional navies and US naval forces.
It is worth noting that the French-led task force will dock in countries at odds with China. Indeed Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam question Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea, though with varying degrees of intensity and for different reasons. Singapore is not a claimant to the disputed area, yet it is bolstering its security partnership with the US and India, which side with the Southeast Asian nations challenging Chinese territorial demands.
China is always critical of naval operations in the South China Sea by non-regional actors. France and the United Kingdom contend that their engagement in the Indo-Pacific arena is guided by an interest in maintaining a rules-based international order.
The two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are also committed to safeguarding their systems of alliances and partnerships in the vast region. For instance, France is discussing with India the finalization of a logistic agreement that would allow French and Indian military forces to gain access to each other’s bases – Delhi signed a similar deal with Washington last year. For its part, Britain has berthing rights and a defense staff office in Singapore. Both London and Paris are deepening military cooperation with Japan and Australia too.
Keeping Beijing in check
Behind France’s and UK’s growing deployment in the Indian Ocean and Pacific waters, however, there is conceivably an effort to help the US keep China in check. In a nuanced manner, Paris and London are starting to denounce Beijing’s geopolitical expansion, which is now perceived on European soil as well.
In this respect, the prospective Quadrilateral (Quad) alliance among the United States, India, Japan and Australia to counter China’s military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific space could be extended to France and Britain.
The “Quad plus two” scheme, with the addition of British and French naval assets, has a notable potential, given that the military units of these six countries could operate in an interoperable way from the Red Sea and East Africa all the way to the Pacific Rim. Despite its increasing military and geopolitical capabilities, this is a concrete challenge for China.