How the French military’s ‘political messengers’ are countering Beijing in the South China Sea


France’s air and sea presence in the region asserts its support for a maritime security order based on shared rules and norms, writes Mathieu Duchâtel

Since July 27, the French Air Force has had three Rafale B fighter jets, one A400M troop transporter and a C135 refuelling tanker in Australia’s Northern Territory.

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The deployment is part of Pitch Black, an annual multilateral joint exercise described by the Australian host as “pivotal to ensuring [the] air force remains ready to respond whenever the Australian government requires”.

It will be followed by Mission Pegase in August, when a French Air Force contingent is to visit Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and India. The French Ministry of Armed Forces describes that mission as helping to “deepen our relations with our main partner countries”, “maintain operational condition so that the air force can be deployed anywhere in the world and showcase France’s power projection capacities and defence aeronautics industry”.

A French Air Force Rafale fighter jet is part of Pitch Black, an annual multilateral joint exercise. Photo: Reuters
The contingent will transit through the southern tip of the South China Sea, providing France with a new occasion to assert what it sees as its freedom of navigation and overflight under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

This show of air power follows regular deployments by the French navy in the South China Sea.

Since 2015, the annual Jeanne d’Arc mission, a training exercise for future navy officers carried out by one Mistral-class amphibious assault ship and one frigate, has systematically sailed through the South China Sea in the spring.

The disputed waters of the South China Sea have seen deployments by French Marine Nationale light monitoring frigate FS Vendemiaire. Photo: Handout
In addition, the disputed waters have seen deployments by the surveillance frigate Vendémiaire in 2014, 2015 and this year; the Polynesia-based surveillance frigate Prairial last year; and two anti-submarine FREMM frigates – the Provence in 2016 and the Auvergne this year.