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Indo-Pacific

Europe pushes back against Beijing with shows of Indo-Pacific muscle

UK and France join exercises with US and partners on doorstep of South China Sea

An F-35 fighter jet takes off from the HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is set to join multinational exercises in the Philippine Sea. (Photo courtesy of the U.K. Defense Ministry)

SYDNEY/LONDON -- After its recent arrival in the Philippine Sea, the U.K.'s largest aircraft carrier and its strike group are set to join the U.S., Japan, Australia and New Zealand, along with fellow European power France, in exercises close to the South China Sea.

"It's rare for a British aircraft carrier to participate" in such events, a source in Japan's Defense Ministry said, highlighting the importance of the drills.

The foray by the HMS Queen Elizabeth is part of a trend this year of major European countries sending naval firepower to the Indo-Pacific in a show of support for Washington's efforts to curb Beijing's militarization of the South China Sea.

The U.K. and France have joined the U.S. and Japan in contending that Chinese claims and activities in the South China Sea violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the Philippine Sea exercises tie in to this.

"As we witness a tilt in power towards the Indo-Pacific region, we are committed to working with our partners here to defend democratic values, tackle shared threats and keep our nations safe," British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a July news release.

The British carrier departed in May and participated in drills with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean in July before transiting through the Luzon Strait South of Taiwan around Sunday. After the Philippine Sea exercises, it is slated to dock in Japan in September.

France in May sailed a frigate and an assault ship near the South China Sea's disputed Spratly Islands, where Beijing has built up its military presence. A French nuclear-powered attack submarine passed through the South China Sea early this year, and French fighter jets and transport aircraft are set to conduct drills this month over Southeast Asia, in an area running from India to Australia.

The German frigate Bayern set off Monday en route to the Indo-Pacific with 230 crew members aboard. The ship is set to cross the South China Sea, according to the foreign ministry.

Europe is not exactly a military force to be reckoned with in Asia, however. The U.K. has a total of around 340 regular-forces military personnel in Oceania and Asia outside the Middle East, with many in Brunei, according to the Defense Ministry. This represents just 0.2% of the British regular forces and 6% or so of their foreign deployments.

The deepening engagement by the U.K. and France in a distant part of the world in which they have little direct stake reflects a sense that a country's international clout is tied to its presence in fast-growing Asia. This goes double for policies toward China, the region's largest economic power.

Even if London and Paris have only limited forces in Asia, that combined with their status as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council can strengthen their diplomatic position with regard to Beijing and provide a card to play in economic negotiations, the thinking goes.

The British and French moves have ruffled China's feathers.

"The Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group's navigation to the South China Sea was the U.K.'s effort to show its presence in the region," the Chinese Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said in an editorial last week.

"China has been strengthening its military capabilities in the South China Sea," and aircraft carriers deployed by the U.S. and its allies "would be very vulnerable to extreme military conflicts," the paper warned. The People's Liberation Army is scheduled to hold drills in the South China Sea from Friday to Tuesday.

Southeast Asian countries' views on the situation are mixed. An Indonesian military insider took a positive view of the warship deployments as "a response that shows China that the South China Sea does not belong to it."

But the same source also said that "the U.S. and Europe should refrain from actions that would excessively provoke China." Indonesia is among the many Southeast Asian countries that have been building stronger economic ties with China and are counting on it for coronavirus vaccines.

Nick Childs, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the London-headquartered International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the moves by European countries in Asia are "a reflection that the center of gravity economically is shifting to that part of the world."

"Also, different countries have slightly different policies and approaches," he added.

Germany, for example, hopes to avoid head-on confrontation with largest trading partner China and is not participating in the Philippine Sea exercises.

Berlin wants to "take on responsibility for upholding the rules-based international order" with the frigate deployment, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a news release this week, using language similar to that of the U.S. and its partners. But the vessel's itinerary includes a stop in Shanghai.

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