Leaders as far away as Canada and Western Europe are sending navy ships to the contested South China Sea this year as pushback against Beijing, which they feel has gone too far and begun alarming their citizens, analysts in the region say.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly said in early February that France had dispatched an attack submarine to the sea this month. A British defense official said last month the U.K.’s flagship aircraft carrier strike group was ready to enter the waterway.
A Royal Canadian Navy warship sailed near the sea in January with a passage through the Taiwan Strait on its way to join exercises nearby with Australian, Japanese and U.S. navies.
These Western countries claim no sovereignty over the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, which lies more than a continent away from their own territorial waters. But they want to support the United States in resisting unilateral expansion by China, which has sparred with former European colonies and alarmed people in Western countries, scholars say.
"I think there's pretty much unanimity in terms of the French, the Dutch, the U.K. and other countries that what we're seeing from China is an attempt to revise the order so that power, not a rules-based approach to the region, is the way the region will be governed or managed going forward,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.
Western countries would resent that management of the sea if it goes against their former colonies or current economic interests in Asia such as access to the sea’s busy cargo shipping lanes, analysts add.
The U.K., for example, is bound by its 1971 Five Power Defense Arrangements to help defend former protectorate Malaysia. Malaysia disputes part of the Chinese claim to about 90% of the South China Sea. The sea stretches from Hong Kong south to the island of Borneo.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson eventually wants his country to take a stronger role in Asia due to economic and trade links in the region, University of New South Wales Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer said in an e-mailed briefing on Monday.
Former French colony Vietnam contests China’s maritime claim including the sea’s Paracel Islands. China controls the Paracel chain today. France still maintains “cultural” and “economic” ties with its former Southeast Asian colonies, Nagy said.
A Chinese survey vessel entered into standoffs in April 2020 with Malaysia and Vietnam. All three countries drill aggressively for oil and value the sea’s 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
French armed forces Minister Florence Parly tweeted on February 9 that the submarine made its voyage 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.”
It further showed “striking proof of the capacity of our French Navy to deploy far away and for a long time in connection with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners,” she said.
Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan dispute parts of the sea too. Asian governments prize the waterway for its fisheries and undersea fossil fuel reserves. China has taken a lead in the dispute over the past decade by landfilling some of the tiny islets for military infrastructure.
Western countries with no claims in the sea have passed ships through as far back as the 1970s as the sovereignty dispute first came into focus. China cites historic usage records to back its activity in the sea despite a 2016 world arbitration court ruling that negated a legal basis for its claims.
Canada, Australia and Western European countries send ships as well to show support for the United States, which has dispatched destroyers to the sea twice this month following regular sailings in 2020, experts believe.
In France’s case, "they just might have notified the U.S. side, and that would be equal to using the submarine passage to indicate indirect support for the United States," said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
Citizens of countries far from Asia would support their missions in the Asian sea because they began paying more attention last year to China as the source of COVID-19, Nagy said. They’re noticing Chinese pressure on India and Taiwan as well as the militarily weaker South China Sea claimants, he said.
Western leaders hope to “create leverage” against China, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“One way of reading leverage is to ensure that Beijing takes European values and principles of sustaining free and open transit through international waters seriously,” Chong said.