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Indo-Pacific

French nuclear sub prowls South China Sea

Armed forces minister calls it proof of capability to deploy far and for long periods

French nuclear-powered submarine Emeraude steams off the coast of Guam during a photo exercise with the U.S. Navy on Dec. 11, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

NEW YORK -- A French Rubis-class nuclear attack submarine has successfully concluded a passage of the South China Sea, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly has announced.

In a series of tweets, Parly said the Emeraude and the support and assistance vessel Seine have been on "Mission Marianne" since September, sailing 15,000 km from the coasts of mainland France in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

They had just completed a passage in the South China Sea, she wrote, calling this "striking proof of the capacity of our French Navy to deploy far and for a long time in connection with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners."

The mission aims to "enrich our knowledge of this area and to affirm that international law is the only rule that is valid, whatever the sea in which we sail," according to Parly.

She added that France is an Indo-Pacific nation, with around 2 million nationals in the region, and that it has the world's second-largest exclusive economic zone at 11 million sq. km, of which 9 million are in the Indo-Pacific.

"We intend to protect our sovereignty and our interests," Parly concluded.

The announcement marks the latest move by European countries to make their presence known in the Indo-Pacific region, increasingly the new geopolitical center of gravity. Parly's reference to international law is seen as a dig at China, which has been criticized by the U.S. and others for island-building in the South China Sea and its maritime claims on a vast swath of it demarcated by the so-called nine-dash line.

The U.K. has agreed to hold joint exercises with Japan this year when it deploys the aircraft carrier group led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Royal Navy plans to send the strike group through the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, resupplying at British and American naval bases along the way, to project power in East Asia.

Germany is also considering sending a naval frigate to Japan, South Korea and Australia as part of its new focus on the Indo-Pacific. 

The USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group transits in formation with the Nimitz carrier strike group in the South China Sea on Feb. 9. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

The Emeraude on Monday took part in a joint exercise with the Indonesian Navy in the Sunda Strait, the channel of water between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra, and the connection between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. It was joined by the French Floreal-class frigate Venemiaire and Indonesian patrol boats Barakuda, Tenggiri and Cakalang, according to Jakarta.

Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups, led by the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, participated in a joint exercise to increase interoperability.

The Nimitz, which was at sea for more than 270 days, was recently called back home from the Middle East under new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. It is passing through the Asian waters under the responsibility of the Yokosuka, Japan-based 7th Fleet on the way to its home port of Bremerton, Washington.

American forces last conducted dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea in July, when the Ronald Reagan and Nimitz carrier strike groups twice operated together in the waters.

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