France, UK announce South China Sea freedom of navigation operations

French and UK Royal Navy ships will be joining their US counterparts in challenging China’s territorial claims in disputed regions of the South China Sea, the two countries’ defense ministers have announced.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson speaking on board HMS Sutherland in Singapore. Photo: Crown Copyright

The announcement was made at the Shangri La security dialogue in Singapore which was attended by French defense minister Florence Parly and the UK defense minister Gavin Williamson, in addition US defense secretary James Mattis.

Speaking at the conference Parly said French and Royal Navy ships would visit Singapore prior to sailing together for the freedom of navigation operation without specifying which disputed South China Sea territory the warships would patrol. Defense ministers also refused to say whether the warships would sail within 12 nautical miles of the islands, which are defined as territorial waters under UNCLOS.

China is in territorial disputes with its neighbors over several reefs, banks and artificially built islands in the South China Sea which include the Spratly and Paracel Islands and the Scarborough Shoal among others.

The announcement of the Franco-English patrol comes less than a week after the US Navy sent two destroyers to sail within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, prompting the Chinese PLA Navy to deploy warships and aircraft in response.

What is more, news emerged on Tuesday of Pentagon officials considering sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait, according to a Reuters report. Taiwan is considered a Chinese territory by official Beijing.

Responding to the report, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that China had “repeatedly emphasized that the Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive one sitting at the core of the China-US relationship. The US should strictly adhere to the one-China principle and the three joint Communiqués and prudently handle the Taiwan issue so as to avoid harming bilateral ties and cross-Straits peace and stability.”