And last month, the Royal Canadian Navy frigate Winnipeg passed through the contested Taiwan Strait to emphasise a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Beijing doesn’t want any of them in its backyard.
“By dispatching naval assets to the South China Sea, France and the UK are contributing to the US’ anti-China stratagems,” states the Beijing-controlled China Daily.
It accuses the West of a “crafty” and “neo-imperial” scheme to support Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia “which could in turn provoke regional crisis”.
China has constructed a network of artificial island fortresses to impose an arbitrary claim over the entire South and East China Seas. It has authorised its Coast Guard to “open fire” on intruding vessels and “unauthorised” structures.
“It is not China that is responsible for the regional instability, but the US and its Quad allies, along with wannabe members such as France. They should focus on improving economic ties through trade and investment, not provoking problems between regional states,” Chinese Communist Party media warns.
French armed forces Minister Florence Parly announced earlier this month that the submarine FS Emeraude voyaged through the South China Sea 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.”
Beijing was incensed.
“The French military has no place in the South China Sea,” state-controlled media declared, accusing Paris of a “destabilising” act. “It appears as though Paris is interested in expanding its destabilising neo-imperial influence into Southeast Asia too, which can only end in disaster just like it has in large swathes of Africa.”
Nevertheless, a French amphibious ship and frigate departed Toulon for South East Asia last week. The FS Tonnerre’s commanding officer told Naval News that he would “work to strengthen” France’s partnership with the US, Japan, India, and Australia.
Beijing has been increasing its military activities in the East and South China Seas in the past year. A near-constant chain of warship and aircraft manoeuvres and live-fire weapons tests have signalled its determination to enforce domination over the contested waterways.
Meanwhile, the Beijing-controlled South China Morning Post has again accused the US of “ratcheting up” tensions in the region after the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed by on Wednesday.
It quoted People’s Liberation Eastern Theatre Command staff as saying: “Theatre troops remain on high alert and are ready to counter all threats and provocations at any time.”
Beijing’s state-controlled media has taken aim at Britain’s historic rivalry with France in a “wolf-warrior” diplomatic gibe.
“France is engaged in ‘friendly’ competition with the United Kingdom. Not wanting to feel ‘left out’, France might have mistakenly thought that it wise to join the growing militarisation of this body of water,” the China Daily asserts.
Despite the chaos and bitterness surrounding Britain’s “Brexit” separation from the European Union, the island nation has found a common cause with its cross-channel neighbours in the South China Sea.
Britain, France and Holland all have colonial ties to the region.
All maintain a degree of presence there.
Britain remains part of the 1971 Five Power Defence Arrangement designed to support its former colony, Malaysia. Signatories include Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
Similarly, France maintains ties with its former colony Vietnam while managing its own Pacific territories such as Reunion Island.
And The Netherlands, which says it will send a warship to accompany HMS Queen Elizabeth, has emphasised that the United Nations Law of the Sea must form the basis of any dispute resolution.
Meanwhile, Germany is planning to send a frigate to Japan as a sign of solidarity over its East China Sea dispute with Beijing. It’s also expected to visit Australia and South Korea.
“We want to deepen our ties with our partners in the democratic camp,” Germany’s secretary for defence Thomas Silberhorn said.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel