South China Sea: France-Philippines proposed military drills seen as support for Manila’s maritime position

The proposed agreement comes against the backdrop of several clashes in recent months involving Chinese and Philippine vessels in the South China Sea as the government of President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr sought closer cooperation with other countries to stake Manila’s claim in the waterways.

Among the incidents, Chinese coastguard vessels had harassed Philippine vessels on resupply missions to BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded warship serving as the Philippine navy’s outpost at the Second Thomas Shoal. Several Philippine vessels were also hit by water cannons from Chinese ships.

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With the support from Paris, Manila could bolster its position in the maritime dispute on the international stage, defence analyst V.K. Parada said.

“[The Philippines] knows that it does not possess the military capabilities to compel China to adhere to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling,” Parada said, referring to The Hague’s verdict against Beijing’s history-based territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“It is effectively borrowing the strength of extra-regional partners like France to buttress its territorial claims. Their support increases the reputational costs of Chinese aggression on the world stage.”

French Minister for the Armed Forces Sébastien Lecornu said earlier this month that the proposed agreement was focused on “[creating] interoperability or a strategic closeness between both armed forces, see how both navies work together, how air forces work together.”

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Philippines accuses Chinese coastguard of damaging its vessel in South China Sea

Philippines accuses Chinese coastguard of damaging its vessel in South China Sea

France joined the Balikatan exercises, the joint annual drills between Philippine and US forces, for the first time on April 22. More than 16,000 troops took part in the exercise.
The Philippines has two separate visiting forces agreements with the United States and Australia. It is also in talks with Japan to negotiate a reciprocal troop access agreement, and has signed a memorandum of understanding with Canada on enhanced defence cooperation.

Indo-Pacific resident power

The proposed deal emphasised France’s determination to play a bigger role in ensuring the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region and stability of maritime routes amid rising tensions fuelled by the Ukraine war and the Israel-Gaza war, analysts say.
“The French are concerned with the implications of regional tensions for the freedom of navigation as they care about safeguarding global supply chains that were challenged by wars in Europe and the Middle East,” said Joshua Espeña, vice-president of the International Development and Security Cooperation.

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Parada told This Week in Asia that French President Emmanuel Macron was positioning the country as a resident power in the Indo-Pacific region by prioritising closer defence cooperation with countries such as India, Australia, and the Philippines.

The participation of French troops in the Balikatan exercises also showed that France wanted to be seen as a credible force in the region, Parada said.

“France’s inclusion in this year’s [Balikatan] iteration serves as an opportunity to increase interoperability with its Indo-Pacific partners, while showcasing to potential rivals its ability and willingness to project power on a global scale.”

A key consideration for France in expanding its presence in the Indo-Pacific region is to showcase its military hardware and boost its defence exports, according to analysts.

The region was a major market for the French defence industry, said Lucio Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, adding that France was being considered as a potential supplier for the Philippine navy’s first submarines.
A Rafale jet fighter takes off from the French aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle off Toulon, southern France. Paris is keen to export more weapons to Indo-Pacific countries. Photo: AFP

Among the major regional deals involving French weapons in recent years were the sale of Rafale fighter aircraft to India and Indonesia, and Scorpene submarines to India, Malaysia and Indonesia, Pitlo said.

The Philippines could also benefit from closer cooperation with France in areas beyond defence, including attracting more investments from French companies to boost its economy, analysts say.

“Economic benefits will lead to more investments … may extend to the development of critical sectors such digital and hard infrastructure, research and technology, power and energy, which will ultimately boost the [Philippines’] long-term economic growth,” Manhit said.

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