In the backdrop of the four day visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to India, is an evolving story of the maritime presence of France and United Kingdom in the Indo-Pacific region.
This year, the British Royal Navy returned to East Asia after four years when HMS Sutherland (Type 23 frigate) visited Australia in February and conducted joint exercises. She is expected to return this month through the South China Sea. The Australian newspaper reported UK’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson saying that “She’ll be sailing through the South China Sea and making it clear our navy has a right to do that”. He did not specify whether the frigate would sail within 12 nautical miles of a disputed territory or artificial island built by the Chinese, as US ships have done in the Freedom of Navigation operations. However, he added that “We absolutely support the US approach on this, we very much support what the US has been doing.”
The stage was set with the UK-Japan 2+2 (Defence and Foreign Ministers) meeting in December 2017. The joint statement spoke of free and open maritime order based on the rule of law, free and open Indo-Pacific region, coordination in capacity building of the nations in the region and strengthening military cooperation. British Prime Minister Theresa May has already announced that HMS Argyll (Type 23 frigate) will sail to Japan in December 2018 to take part in joint exercises, the first by the two navies since World War I. This is part of a military cooperation that includes joint exercises of ground forces and air forces, developing a new air-to-air missile for the US F-35 stealth fighter, joint development of an advanced fighter jet.
In August 2017, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had said that the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers will show the flag in the South China Sea after getting commissioned. The Royal Navy intends to deploy an aircraft-carrier task force in West Asia with logistics support at Duqm, Oman. Ships could also be positioned at Singapore where UK has berthing rights.
After a 2+2 (Defence and Foreign Ministers) meeting between Japan and France in January 2018, both countries voiced concern about the situation in the East and South China Sea. They condemned the island-building activities in the South China Sea, and agreed to focus on naval cooperation and joint development of military equipment. The first ever bilateral naval exercises were conducted in February 2018. The two countries are also working on an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement for the exchange of supplies (including ammunition) between their militaries. France has a permanent naval presence in the region to safeguard its territories in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. The 2018 edition of the “Jeanne d’Arc” has commenced. This is long term (5 months) deployment of an amphibious task force with integrated British units and personnel. In addition to amphibious exercises with regional navies and US Marines, the port calls will include Jakarta, Bali, Darwin, Saigon and Singapore.
Meanwhile, the US Carrier Task Force led by USS Carl Vinson is in the South China Sea and has made a port call at Vietnam, the first by an US aircraft carrier since 1975. US Military Sealift Command Hospital ship USNS Mercy has commenced the 13th Pacific Partnership, a humanitarian and civic assistance mission. The ship will visit Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam from February through June. Thailand, US and South Korea participated in the Cobra Gold Exercise in February this year.
In a world where military alliances have become out-dated, it is the alignments between the numerous bi-lateral and tri-lateral arrangements that prevail. The common nodes between these networks provide the mechanism for multilateral cooperation. It is quite clear in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain that this alignment includes the ‘quad’ plus two.