France is ramping-up the pace of its naval patrols in the Indo-Pacific with two surface warships of the French Navy set to sail through the South China Sea in the coming weeks.
The French Navy on Friday announced two of its warships will transit the South China Sea later to uphold France's defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific while confronting China for its illegal territorial claims.
France's Ministry of Armed Forces said the amphibious assault helicopter carrier FS Tonnerre (L9014) and and the La Fayette-class frigate FS Surcouf (F711) set sail from the naval base at Toulon Thursday for "Mission Jeanne D'Arc 2021."
Earlier this month, the nuclear attack submarine SNA Emeraude (S604) and the support ship BSAM Seine (A604) completed a joint patrol of the South China Sea, the first such mission acknowledged by the French this year.
Two patrols of the Indo-Pacific by the French Navy in just two months is extraordinary since the navy in the past only conducted at least two patrols in the region per year.
The ministry pointed out the Mission Jeanne D'Arc this year will be a true operational deployment supporting France's defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific. The mission also has a training component, however.
Both warships comprise an amphibious ready group (ARG) whose voyage will take them all the way to Japan. The ARG will transit the South China Sea twice, confirmed the ministry.
Mission Jeanne D'Arc is an annual long duration and joint deployment that aims to provide officer cadets with "at sea" operational training before joining their units as officers.
"This deployment of the Jeanne D'Arc Group, this willingness to deploy in this zone reinforces the partnerships we have with our key partners in the zone, which are Japan, Australia, India and the United States," said Capt Arnaud Tranchant, commanding officer of the Tonnerre.
"During our presence in the zone for the months, we will work to strengthen these partnerships."
The ARG might also transit the Taiwan Strait, but Capt. Tranchant was noncommittal about this, said Naval News.
"We will take the most direct maritime routes ... while obviously respecting international law and the sovereignty of the territories near which we will navigate. But I must admit that we have not yet traced our roads in this area," he said.
France's Indo-Pacific defense strategy reaffirms the country's interest in this geopolitically important region through a strengthened presence and intensified bilateral and regional cooperation with its allies.
The ARG will later link-up with Combined Task Force 150 (CTF150) in the Indian Ocean and will participate in large-scale exercises with the navies of India, Australia, Japan and the United States.
The ARG will also take part in a combined amphibious exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Navy in May at one of Japan' southern islands.
France is present in the Indo-Pacific via its overseas territories. These holdings consist of Mayotte and La Réunion islands, Scattered Islands and French Southern and Antarctic Territories, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia and Clipperton.
Ninety-three percent of France's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The region is also home to 1.5 million French citizens, as well as 8,000 men and women of the French Armed Forces.
The Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs earlier this week confirmed the unopposed transit of the South China Sea by the Emeraude and Seine. It pointed out the navy has conducted several freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in the past.
"This extraordinary patrol has just completed a passage in the South China Sea," tweeted Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly at the time.
"A striking proof of the capacity of our French Navy to deploy far away and for a long time together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners."
"Why such a mission? To enrich our knowledge of this area and affirm that international law is the only rule that is valid, whatever the sea where we sail," she later said.