France has thrown its hat into the acrimonious South China Sea debate, calling for more European naval patrols in a contested waterway that is at the center of a growing dispute between China and the United States and its Asian allies.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking Sunday at a three-day security conference in Singapore, called on European navies to have a “regular and visible” presence in the region to uphold the law of the sea and freedom of navigation.
The new French vociferousness appears linked to the looming ruling in the Philippines’ arbitral case challenging some of China’s most audacious maritime claims. But it shouldn’t be entirely forgotten that France and Britain have colorable (if dormant) legal claims to some South China Sea islands. In his recent book, journalist Bill Hayton lays out the tangled history of the historical claims to the Spratly Islands, in particular. Britain publicly laid claim to Spratly Island in 1877, and France made its own bid for possession in the 1930s. Summing up the historical evidence and law, Hayton notes “the apparently ridiculous situation whereby Britain or France might have as strong a legal claim to the islands as any of the states that border the Sea.”