Both France and the United Kingdom will challenge Beijing by sailing through “territorial waters” in the South China Sea this week.
French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly and British Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson made the announcement while speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Sunday. While neither official mentioned China in regards to the exercise, which will involve a French maritime task group and UK ships, the language they used was pointed.
“We have to make it clear that nations need to play by the rules, and there are consequences for not doing so,” Williamson said, adding that the UK will send three ships to the South China Sea this year to enforce rules-based order.
Parly also gave further details of how a challenge will play out.
“At some point a stern voice intrudes into the transponder and tells us to sail away from supposedly ‘territorial waters,'” Parly said. “But our commander then calmly replies that he will sail forth, because these, under international law, are indeed international waters.”
“By exercising our freedom of navigation, we also place ourselves in the position of a persistent objector to the creation of any claim to de facto sovereignty on the islands,” Parly added.
The South China Sea is a highly contentious area in which China, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have competing claims.
But China has drawn increasing ire for the militarization of its islands, and the US recently disinvited the PLA Navy from an international military exercise because of Beijing’s “continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea” which “only serve to raise tensions and destabilize the region.”
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reiterated this stance on Saturday at the Singapore meeting, saying that the placement of weapons on South China Sea islands “is tied directly to military use for the purpose of intimidation and coercion.”
“There will be consequences to China ignoring the international community,” Mattis said.
“I believe there are much larger consequences in the future when nations lose the rapport of their neighbors… eventually these [actions] do not pay off,” he said.
Several hours later, China’s Lieutenant General He Le slammed “irresponsible comments from other countries.”
“Certain countries, under the guise of so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ and ‘freedom of aviation,’ have sent military vessels and aircraft to the waters and airspace near China’s territory, even sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese waters,” He said.
“This has jeopardized China’s security and challenged China’s sovereignty,” He said, highlighting that such acts “are the true root of the militarization of the South China Sea.”