Tag Archives: Asia-Pacific

China’s Aircraft Carrier: ‘Dreadnought’ or ‘Doctrinal Dilemma’?

This post first appeared on the National Maritime Foundation and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Captain Gurpreet S. Khurana, PhD

Less than five years after the China commissioned its first Soviet-origin aircraft carrier Liaoning in September 2012, it launched its first-ever domestic carrier – the Type 001A – on 26 April 2017. The new carrier is likely to be commissioned in 2020 as Shadong. Even though the Liaoning and the Type 001A are medium-sized conventionally powered (non-nuclear) vessels equipped with aircraft ski-jumps (not catapults), and thus far less capable than the super-carriers operated by the United States, the occasion was celebrated in China as a major achievement symbolic of China’s ‘great power’ status. A report indicates that a larger, next generation Type 002 carrier equipped with a steam catapult has been under construction since March 2015, and its follow-on carriers may be nuclear powered.  

The launch of the Type 001A is, indeed, a milestone in the development of China as a major naval power. It reminds us of the famous battleship HMS Dreadnought commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1906. The Dreadnought was a highly successful warship induction marking the dawn of the 20th century warfare at sea. It became iconic of a transformative naval capability in a manner that the older existing warships of the world began to fade into obsolescence as pre-Dreadnoughts. The celebration in Beijing similarly justified, given the achievement of China’s defense-technological endeavor within a relatively short period of time. It stands out rather conspicuously in comparison to India, which has been operating aircraft carriers since 1961, but is yet to commission its first indigenous carrier named Vikrant.

Moving from ‘symbolism’ to ‘substance,’ such ‘flat-tops’ are indeed valuable platforms for maritime force-projection, which, for centuries, has been an important naval mission of all major power navies. However, given China’s maritime geography and the kind of insecurities it encounters today from vastly superior adversarial navies of the United States and Japan operating in the western Pacific Rim, the PLA Navy’s growing doctrinal reliance on carriers seems to be an aberration. It may have been more prudent for China to focus on bolstering its existing Anti-Access/ Area-Denial (A2AD) operational doctrine with the naval doctrine of ‘sea-denial’ – particularly given the PLA Navy’s traditional strengths in submarine, sea-mine and missile warfare – rather than diluting its naval doctrine by adding the carrier-based ‘sea-control’ doctrine.

Chinese carriers will also be highly vulnerable in the western Pacific Rim, not only to the advanced navies, but also to the many unfriendly airbases and submarine bases of the littoral countries dotting the periphery of the East and South China Seas. It is well known that even the smaller countries in the region are building potent sea-denial capabilities against China. The recent induction of the six advanced Russian Kilo-class submarines into the Vietnamese Navy is a case in point. If a maritime conflict breaks out in the area, the PLA Navy carrier would surely be a prime target and any such successful targeting would be a major symbolic blow to China’s morale, and thus its war effort.

The Chinese believe that ‘sea-control’ is necessary to assert its maritime-territorial claims in the China Seas. This could have been achieved effectively – and at reduced risk – by optimally using the air-bases in the Chinese mainland and the occupied islands, which China is expanding through reclamation. Ironically, China’s island-building activity in the South China Sea has caused a major damage to China’s claim to its ‘peaceful rise’ theory, which is now being aggravated by its own carrier-building program. Furthermore, the program lacks operational credibility, much into the foreseeable future. It would take the PLA Navy many years to operationalize a full-fledged Carrier Task Force, and possibly decades to make it effective enough to achieve sea-control against advanced navies. Meanwhile, the process could cause an indelible dent in China’s objective to propagate a ‘benign’ and ‘constructive’ image in the Indo-Pacific region, including through its ‘One-Belt-One-Road’ (OBOR) initiative.

Chinese strategists also believe that carrier-based sea-control is necessary to protect their Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean, as indicated by China’s recently articulated strategy of “open-seas protection” in its 2014 Defense White Paper. However, this could have been achieved – again effectively, and at reduced risk – by deploying its warships in its naval bases at strategic locations such as Djibouti and Gwadar.

China is likely to have at least three aircraft carriers in commission at any given time in the future. The Chinese have clearly gone too far ahead for any reappraisal of its aircraft-carrier program, possibly lured into the ‘command of the seas’ gambit of the major western naval powers, without factoring their own geostrategic conditions and circumstances. One may therefore, expect that the PLA Navy’s ‘doctrinal duality’ in terms of primacy to both ‘sea control’ and ‘sea denial’ may become its dilemma in the coming years.

Captain Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD, is Executive Director at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy, or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com.

Featured Image: In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a newly-built aircraft carrier is transferred from dry dock into the water at a launch ceremony at a shipyard in Dalian in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province, Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

Hainan’s Maritime Militia: All Hands on Deck for Sovereignty Pt. 3

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

Part I and II of this conclusion to our series on Hainan’s maritime militia discussed the Hainan Provincial Military District (MD) leadership’s approach to constructing maritime militia forces in response to national militia guidelines and how they address challenges during construction efforts. This final installment in our series offers a glimpse into what the Hainan MD’s efforts have yielded in force scale. It also examines the incentivizes motivating the builders of this force, such as political drivers and pressures confronting local officials. The conclusion also outlines issues meriting further observation and analysis, such as the significance of the Sansha Maritime Militia force for China’s third sea force more broadly, and the degree to which Chinese officials frame related efforts as part of a “People’s War.”

Although this series has discussed in depth four key locations for maritime militia development, they are part of a far broader effort by the entire Hainan MD. The maritime militia units of Sanya, Danzhou, Tanmen, and Sansha should not be seen in isolation, but rather as elements of the Hainan MD militia force system. Directed by national militia construction guidelines and a highly publicized visit by paramount leader Xi Jinping to the Tanmen Maritime Militia, every other county in Hainan Province has established singular or multiple maritime militia units. These include districts of the provincial capital Haikou and many other directly administered and autonomous counties. Additional noteworthy maritime militia units are located in Lingshui County, Chengmai County, Changjiang Li Autonomous County, Wanning City, and Dongfang City. While our research to date has not revealed them to be on the same level of the four leading units in the totality of their documented capabilities or achievements, they nonetheless merit further examination. Dongfang and Wanning Cities’ maritime militia, for example, participated in defense of China’s HYSY-981 oil rig alongside the better-known Sanya and Tanmen maritime militia units.

Below is a map depicting all of the 31 maritime militia units under the Hainan MD jurisdiction identified as we conducted research for this series.

While local conditions produce considerable variety in unit scale and type, one can notionally estimate the total number of personnel and vessels in Hainan’s maritime militia force by assuming that the 31 units displayed are the rough median size of a militia company. Most maritime militia units, often referred to using tactical-level unit organization terms such as “fendui” (分队) or “company” (连), may comprise around 120 personnel and 10 vessels. This would yield a hypothetical total of 3,720 personnel and 310 vessels in Hainan’s maritime militia force. Such estimation is admittedly imprecise: Chinese organizational terms often lack both alignment with Western equivalents and consistency with regard to precise status and numerical size. As Kenneth Allen and Jana Allen explain, “Different Chinese and English dictionaries translate fendui (分队) as subunit, detachment, element, or battery…Although fendui refers specifically to battalions, companies, platoons, and sometimes squads, which together comprise the grassroots level (基层), a fendui can also refer to an ad hoc grouping of personnel organized for a particular function.” Moreover, characteristics specific to China’s maritime militia may accentuate organizational and numerical variation: some units lack vessels organic to the unit and rely on the requisitioning of civilian vessels for training and missions. Other detachments vary in size from 70 to over 300 personnel. Units also vary considerably in capability. Sansha City’s new maritime militia fleet, for instance, is vastly superior to the Chengmai County Maritime Militia Company.   

The overall distribution of Hainan’s maritime militia force reflects the militia-building responsibility given to each locality as contained in the commonly invoked guidance that “provinces build battalions, cities build fendui, and counties build companies” (省建大队、市建分队、县建中队). While Hainan Province lacks a battalion-level unit and adherence to this formulation is less than exact, its various cities and counties have all established maritime militia fendui or companies. Required by the Hainan MD, every single Hainanese coastal city and county with a harbor has established its own maritime militia force.  

Incentivizing Cadres

As documented throughout this series, China’s civilian and military leaders find strategic and operational advantages in the maritime militia, and have made use of these forces at sea. While key cities and counties with marine economies are sufficiently robust to support capable maritime militia forces, other localities with far less potential to form an elite maritime militia are nevertheless developing their own units. Other factors may also be driving this buildup. While this series has already surveyed the carefully-calibrated incentives available to maritime militia personnel for their services, it has not yet directly addressed the motivation of local officials involved in building the militia. This is ever-more critical: local civilian and military officials represent the key force in building the militia, which do not organize autonomously. This section will therefore consider the role of provincial politics and bureaucrats’ incentives in maritime militia building.

There is an obvious political dynamic involved in militia building, harking back to China’s radical past when revolutionary zeal constituted a criterion for cadres’ selection or promotion. To further their Party careers, local officials naturally embrace and support major political campaigns and policies. As China pursues regional predominance in maritime power militarily and economically, major national resources are being lavished on coastal provinces and their maritime forces. China is also actively working to boost the population’s maritime consciousness through a variety of measures, including by cultivating and publicly praising maritime militia leaders and their units. Hainan MD Commander Zhang Jian and Political Commissar Liu Xin wrote that leaders of People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD) should strive to be “rights protection commanders and political commissars,” and government leaders should serve as “rights protection secretaries or mayors.” Cadre evaluation, according to Zhang, rewards those who take the initiative in upholding China’s claimed maritime rights, suggesting increased opportunities for career advancement by local officials thus dedicated. Such grassroots forces are also intended to spread maritime awareness and consciousness among the masses, forming a component of national defense education on maritime affairs conducted by local People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Commands.  

Success in maritime militia work can help local officials impress their superiors, potentially facilitating advancement. Numerous accolades are accorded governments, institutions, enterprises, units and individuals that contribute exceptionally to national defense efforts. Sansha City recently garnered national attention when it was designated a “National Double-Support Model City” in recognition of its exceptional assistance to the military, with which the Sansha Maritime Militia cooperates. The famous Tanmen Maritime Militia Company, which received a visit from President Xi Jinping in 2013 on the first anniversary of the Scarborough Shoal Incident, had previously earned numerous plaudits from the PLA for its persistent sea service. Having recently garnered multiple awards for its armed forces work, Lingshui County has made major progress in developing its maritime militia force. Reflecting such success, nine civilian armed forces cadres who worked with the militia have since risen to township deputy mayor and deputy party secretary positions, suggesting opportunities for career mobility through militia work.  

Numerous reports celebrate the diligence of the Lingshui County PAFD Political Commissar Colonel Xing Jincheng on building up the maritime militia under his authority. After transferring to the Lingshui PAFD from his position as deputy political commissar of a PLA regiment, Colonel Xing expressed an unwillingness to relax in an easy “reserves” job. Dismissing suggestions that he rest after a long career, and ride out his final posting on Hainan’s scenic southern coast, Xing is lionized for instead devoting great energy to enforcing strict discipline in the PAFD staff and in building the Lingshui Maritime Militia. Extensive media coverage of Xing puts his efforts in the context of the latest PLA reforms; and the growing mission role of maritime rights protection, extending down to even grassroots PAFDs.  

Other reports indicate that local government officials must fulfill their responsibilities in supporting national defense mobilization work as a key function of their position or else risk losing their jobs. For example, an article in the November 2016 issue of China’s Militia featuring Guangxi Autonomous Region’s efforts in this respect included an unattributed quote referencing military work by local civilian government and Party leaders: “[those] who don’t stress the importance of and cannot grasp armed forces work are incompetent and derelict in their duties.” The article then explains how Guangxi Party and government officials have increased their maritime militia force in response to the growing mission of rights protection in the South China Sea. China has raised Military-Civilian Fusion to the level of national strategy, as documented in the 2013 doctrinal volume Science of Military Strategy. As a result, officials in coastal provinces can be subject to performance metrics in construction of “maritime mobilization forces” (such as maritime militia) when considered for career advancement.

October 2016: Sansha Maritime Militia in the Paracels prepare to conduct a joint patrol with troops of the Sansha PLA Garrison (Wen Wei Po).

A Patriotic Employment Release Valve

The reduction in PLA Army personnel by 300,000 announced in September 2015 will likely exacerbate the growing number of PLA veterans who feel neglected by China’s government and society. Recent protests in Beijing by veterans groups highlight the fact that provincial MDs and governments are ill-prepared to deal with the newly demobilized troops that are currently or will soon be deprived of their previous employment. PAFDs are the front-line military departments that handle veteran’s affairs and work to reintegrate veterans into society. Responsible for organizing and managing local militia units, the thousands of county PAFDs across China can easily funnel these veterans into various militia units, affording these former soldiers a new chance to serve in leadership positions among the militia force. Indeed, news coverage of Lingshui County states more and more demobilized veterans are entering the maritime militia, becoming “the ‘vanguard’ in maritime rights protection.” The Hainan MD thus occupies advantageous terrain for converting demobilized PLA troops into a new grassroots force for furthering Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea.

The Sansha Maritime Militia fleet exemplifies this new trend. Our installment on this unit documented how this new “state-run militia fishing fleet” functions primarily as a force for maritime rights protection. A break from the more traditional mode of maritime militia construction, as exemplified by the Tanmen Maritime Militia, this new fleet is manned by professional mariners, law enforcement, and PLA veterans who earn substantial salaries regardless of fishing catch performance. Chinese sources anticipated correctly that most of this fleet’s 84 vessels would be delivered by the end of 2016. In December 2015, the Guangzhou Taicheng Shipbuilding Industry Co. Ltd. featured one such vessel on its website, whose interior it furnished as a subcontractor following its construction by Xijiang Shipyard. The accompanying description stated that the vessel had a “weapons and equipment room” (武备库) and an “ammunition store” (弹药库). Open sources reveal this vessel, Qiongsanshayu 000212, to be part of the new fleet of Sansha Maritime Militia vessels delivered to the state-run Sansha City Fisheries Development Company, which operate under the guise of fishing. Details available in other open sources, some of which show the Sansha Maritime Militia training to load “light weapons” onto the deck of these new vessels, help confirm the intended roles and identities of this new militia fleet.

Openly available AIS data has identified all of the 84 Sansha Maritime Militia vessels operating in the South China Sea. Intermittent AIS transmissions (available via the website Marine Traffic) indicate that at least seven different Sansha Maritime Militia vessels were present at Scarborough Shoal at varying times, and 17 more vessels observed at Mischief Reef. While vessels may transmit AIS signals when operating singularly or in small groups, maritime militia vessels most likely move in larger groups: the Sansha Maritime Militia fleet comprises six companies, which generally operate as units. Openly available satellite imagery (e.g., from Google) also shows such vessel groups moored at Mischief and Subi reefs. In September 2016, the Philippine Ministry of Defense released photos of Sansha’s maritime militia vessels at Scarborough Shoal. Despite Philippine statements in October 2016 that PRC ships had left the shoal, AIS data reveal that Sansha Maritime Militia and CCG vessels were present there as recently as February to mid-April 2017. As this report went to press, AIS data and satellite images confirmed the presence of Sansha Maritime Militia vessels at Scarborough Shoal, Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef.    

7 September 2016: The Philippines released photos showing two Sansha Maritime Militia vessels present at Scarborough Shoal.
A Google Earth image dated 30 April 2016 shows a Sansha Maritime Militia vessel alongside a China Coast Guard cutter at the recently built wharf at Subi Reef.

Sansha City Fisheries Development Company, the commercial name for its state-run militia fleet, was established quietly with little mention in the PRC press. This contrasted markedly with the often widespread fanfare and in-depth reporting on even minor economic achievements by Sansha City and Hainan’s marine economy. After all, local officials have every incentive to promote their advancement by trumpeting economic development, a key performance metric—unless instructed otherwise for information security reasons. The rapid construction of this militia fleet since its establishment in February 2015 raises the prospect of China replicating this new model of maritime militia building elsewhere, perhaps in the East China Sea. As part of any Chinese effort to prepare for East China Sea operations, one might imagine an analog to the Sansha Maritime Militia in another archipelagic municipality, such as Zhejiang Province’s Zhoushan City. It is clear that China has not abandoned the standard model of building the maritime militia out of existing commercial fishing and shipping fleets. However, the combined pressures of a commercial shipbuilding slump, large numbers of unemployed veterans reentering civil society, and benefits to political and military careers in local officials may make the Sansha Maritime Militia model attractive to other provinces.

With numerous projects and investments, Hainan Province is striving to become a global tourism destination. Major influxes of Chinese and foreign tourists toting smartphones and digital cameras make the Hainan MD’s task of ensuring security and secrecy in its military facilities increasingly arduous. Sanya City, for instance, is not only a popular vacation destination but also contains the Yulin Naval Base, a leading home for China’s secretive ballistic-missile submarine force. One of the militia’s missions is the security of important infrastructure and operations such as key ports or coastal patrols. Militia personnel also reportedly perform security functions to protect military facilities and national defense construction projects.

Finally, an additional security function of Hainan’s advanced maritime militia units is escorting China’s growing fleet of research vessels that perform hydrographic and geologic surveys. We introduced one example in our installment on Sanya’s maritime militia: the Sanya Fugang Fisheries Co. Ltd.’s 30-day escort mission for China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s April 2013 exploration in the Zhongjiannan basin south of Triton Island. This was the location of the HYSY-981 oil rig incident a year later. In another example, the Guangzhou Marine Geological Survey Office stated on its website in an undated article that “for years, our office has hired fishing vessels as escorts during every seismic and drilling operation for the protection of underwater cables and to ensure the smooth and safe progress of operations.” U.S. Naval War College professor Ryan Martinson has made public some of the most recent escort operations conducted by fishing vessels for PRC survey vessels. While the extent of the Hainan Maritime Militia’s continued involvement in these escort operations remains unclear, it appears to be a growing mission for China’s maritime militia overall and worthy of additional research.      

Conclusion: People’s War Turns Seaward

This series has surveyed only a small portion of China’s total maritime militia force, the world’s largest. Part 1 examined national militia development guidelines and how they were translated by Hainan Province during its recent spate of maritime militia construction. Part 2 explored challenges confronting Hainan Province in its development of maritime militia forces and some of the solutions introduced to address them. Hainan Province is a key maritime frontier province, charged with administering all of Beijing’s expansive South China Sea claims. Yet Hainan as a province and military district does not build its maritime militia in isolation. It is, rather, one of many coastal provinces that raise such forces. In fact, other more economically and technologically advanced provinces—such as Guangdong and Zhejiang—possess greater socioeconomic bases on which to develop larger-scale, more technically sophisticated maritime militia units. Provinces construct militia forces in response to national militia guidelines under a dual-responsibility system between government/Party and PLA leaders. The resulting maritime militia fleets are thus made available to operate alongside the PLA Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard, as well as other provinces’ maritime militia forces. Case in point: China’s defense of its HYSY-981 oil rig in 2014. PLA senior colonel and Professor Jiao Zhili of the Nanjing Army Command College’s National Defense Mobilization Department described the event as mobilization for military struggle: “during the ‘981’ offshore platform’s struggle with Vietnam in the South China Sea, the emergency mobilization of militia from Hainan, Guangdong, and Guangxi to the front lines on the perimeter was a major strategic deterrent for Vietnam.” The mobilization orders for this event originated in the former Guangzhou Military Region, now the Southern Theater Command. While maritime militia units are raised and directed by individual provinces, they fulfill roles within a grander regional military structure.

These forces are often discussed by outside observers in reference to China’s gray zone operations, while Chinese authors often invoke the tradition of People’s War when discussing the militia. The study of these irregular maritime forces begs the question of whether we are witnessing a form of “Maritime People’s War.” In Chinese strategic thought, People’s War is regarded as the mixed use of regular and irregular forces in peacetime (and wartime if necessary) to overcome a superior adversary (or multiple adversaries) through the adroit use of various tactics, deceit, and protraction. The PLA continues to uphold the core concept of People’s War, adapting and evolving specific elements of the strategy to suit modern strategic and operational needs. China’s 2006 Defense White Paper, for instance, states that the PLAN is “exploring the strategy and tactics of maritime people’s war under modern conditions.” As current strategic considerations call for prioritizing the enhancement of China’s maritime defenses, the PLA is likely expanding the operational space of People’s War to cover Chinese maritime claims to the maximum extent feasible.

For China’s provinces, the MD system is described as the “practical application of people’s war thought in the military system” and an important channel through which civilian-military integration efforts are implemented. Hainan MD Commander Zhang Jian also describes the missions of the Hainan MD’s maritime militia in terms of a Maritime People’s War. He advocates “us[ing] maritime people’s war as a means to declare sovereignty, participate in development, cooperate with law enforcement, and support combat operations.” Zhang outlined how the maritime militia will conduct missions within joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense operations, essentially making combined use of the main forces of the PLA services and the local forces of the provinces. Such amalgamation is a defining feature of People’s War. The incidents this series has explored illustrate the multifarious tools that China utilizes in order to seize tactical advantages envisioned in traditional concepts of People’s War. Provinces and their local forces undoubtedly comprise the fundamental elements of People’s War, and remarks by Chinese officials like State Councilor and Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan’s in August 2016 suggest official endorsement of such strategies. This raises questions beyond the scope of this series that require further research, particularly in reconciling China’s continued national tradition of militia building with the realities of modern warfare. This topic is certainly not absent from debate in China, as analysts wrestle with the adaptation and evolution of People’s War to suit supporting roles for the PLA of today. As China adapts a time-honored concept to serve growing maritime security interests, the maritime militia is proving critical to its operationalization.

At the very least, this series demonstrates the widespread local mandate for maritime militia building in Chinese provinces such as Hainan. Maritime militia building is directed by official policy in China’s coastal provinces. Most coastal counties and cities raise and sustain their own maritime militia units according to the scale of their respective marine economies. While the Chinese government may not often admit openly and outwardly to using its maritime militia forces to support its objectives at sea, the voices of key stakeholders inside China and the central guidance passed down to the provinces reveal much about plans to construct and use these forces. Regardless of how these forces are characterized, provinces use them to protect China’s claimed maritime rights and interests and to support an increasingly blue-water-capable PLAN by dispatching greater numbers of militia personnel away from their shorelines to increase China’s strategic depth at sea.

Numerous PLA authorities, including Commander Zhang Jian, articulate the value the presence of fishing vessels has in all of waters claimed by China to demonstrate sovereignty and protect maritime rights and interests. Deputy Director Xu Kui of the National Defense University’s National Defense Mobilization Research Department explains how the maritime militia is a key force under China’s new “military strategic guideline” of preparing for maritime military struggle, and that it must “maintain a regular presence in disputed waters.” Echoing others, Xu cites the longstanding success of the Tanmen Maritime Militia in preserving Chinese presence in the Spratlys. The Tanmen Maritime Militia offers living testimony to how even a single township or county can impact the status quo in maritime East Asia. This consideration is not lost on China’s leaders, and Hainan’s leading maritime militia units represent prime examples of the diverse avenues of force that Chinese provinces can develop and contribute in the service of overall national maritime ambitions.

For all these reasons, Hainan’s maritime militia—both the bulk of its forces overall and the elite vanguard units probed deeply in this series—will remain a key component of China’s statecraft and security efforts the South China Sea: as a standing, front-line force, with its leading units celebrated as models for others to emulate.

Conor Kennedy is a research associate in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He received his MA at the Johns Hopkins University – Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com. The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: February 2017: Head of the Lingshui County PAFD Colonel Xing Jincheng, in plain clothes, speaks to the maritime militia under his command (CCTV News).

French Maritime Strategic Thought On the Indo-Pacific

Maritime Security Topic Week

By David Scott 


In Europe, France is distinctive in claiming that its boundaries actually extend outside Europe into the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, i.e. the ‘Indo-Pacific,’ through its overseas departments (département d’outre-mer), and overseas territories (territoire d’outre-mer), which are considered integral parts of France, and indeed thereby of the European Union. These Indo-Pacific possessions also have large Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). These give France important maritime interests to be maintained, and if need be defended, by the French Navy. French maritime strategy is two-fold. Firstly, locally-based naval ships patrol in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Secondly, regular deployments from metropolitan waters of the Jeanne d’Arc Group; the battle group centered around the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and amphibious helicopter carrier Mistral, along with supporting destroyers, frigates, nuclear attack submarines, and air surveillance. As the current Chief of Staff Admiral Prazuck noted “our commitment to freedom of navigation calls for deployments to the Asia-Pacific zone several times each year.” Jeanne D’Arc 2017 consisted of a four-month deployment from March-June 2017 in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, described by France as “Indo-Pacific space … which is admittedly a long way from [metropolitan] France, but not from our territories.”

In the Indian Ocean, France’s possessions of Mayotte (population around 227,000) and Reunion (population around 840,000) in the southwest quadrant, are both considered as an “overseas department” (département d’outre-mer). They operate as “interlocking military stations” (Rogers), together with military facilities in Djibouti. In the southern (Terres Australes) quadrant are the uninhabited Kerguelen, St. Paul & Amsterdam and the Crozet islands which operate as “overseas territories” (territoire d’outre-mer) administered from Reunion. This residency status is why France was a founding member of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) established in 2008. France keeps a permanent naval presence at Reunion. This is further strengthened by regular deployment into the region of the Jeanne d’Arc carrier battle group; eight times during 2001-2017, which has included regular biannual joint exercises with India (Varuna since 1993) and the U.S. (Operation Bois Bellau in 2013).

In the Pacific, France is to be found in New Caledonia (population 270,000), Wallis & Futuna (population 12,000), and French Polynesia (population 270,000). Both New Caledonia and French Polynesia were admitted as full members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in September 2016. French “maritime naval zones” and local naval units are centered on New Caledonia and French Polynesia. It is from New Caledonia that France hosts the biannual Croix du Sud humanitarian and relief exercises. France has participated in a range of Pacific security mechanisms since their foundation; namely the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (1988 onward), with Australia and New Zealand in the FRANZ mechanism (1992 onwards), with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand in the Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group (1998 onwards), and the South Pacific Defence Ministers mechanism (2013 onward.

Five key documents provide the strategic background to this Indo-Pacific maritime role:

Each of these can be looked at to see the development of this Indo-Pacific maritime role for France.

A national strategy for the sea and for the oceans (2008)

December 2008 witnessed the release by the Prime Minister’s Office of a Blue Paper titled A national strategy for the sea and for the oceans. This represented a call for future action. François Fillon’s ‘Preface’ as Prime Minister, was clear, “France has decided to return to its historic maritime role.” The 2008 Blue Book emphasized France’s overseas possessions and their EEZs:

“France, with its overseas départements and territories, is present in every ocean […] The creation of an economic zone has given France jurisdiction over nearly 11 million square kilometres of maritime space (of which more than 96% surround the overseas possessions), second only to the United States.” (p. 12)

These Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) were of significance for their resources, “many of France’s maritime assets are thus associated with these large overseas economic zones where this country has exclusive rights to resource exploitation” (p. 46), and “most of these zones are in the Pacific (around French Polynesia and New Caledonia) and the Indian Ocean (around the Kerguelen Islands)” (p. 46).

French naval power was stressed; “the French Navy’s wide range of capabilities maintain its [France’s] rank and presence throughout the world’s seas” (p.14). However, French naval assets remained a matter for French sovereignty:

“At the present stage of construction of the European Union, France does not intend to permanently allocate any of its sea-borne capabilities to an EU body or agency. France will continue to provide support for action coordinated by the EU or one of its agencies, by seconding the capabilities it chooses for specific periods of time or tasks” (p. 68).

Within the Indo-Pacific, the Indian Ocean was of immediate maritime importance for France, “the Indian Ocean is consequently well placed for the expression of France’s maritime policy, whether in our regional policy or in the action we promote with Europe, for example, against piracy” (pp. 72-73).

Maritimisation: La France face à la nouvelle géopolitique des océans (2012)

A maritime emphasis was fed into French deliberations by the Information Report from the Senate in July 2012 titled Maritimisation: La France face à la nouvelle géopolitique des océans (‘Maritimisation: France faces new geopolitics of the oceans’).

Continuing structural shifts towards the Indo-Pacific were noted, “the centre of geopolitical gravity is moving eastwards, highlighting the riparian nations of the Indian Ocean and Pacific(p. 205). Given French possessions, “as a result there cannot be a maritime strategy without an overseas strategy (tr. p. 133), and that “the control of the maritime spaces is one of the keys of French power and influence on the international scene (p. 140). Sea lane security across the Western Pacific, South China Sea and Indian Ocean was identified as of first rate importance for France, “more than ever, control of this maritime route between Europe and Asia becomes a major strategic issue” (p. 36)

In part this was a question of criminal activities and piracy, but what was also significant in this document was its repeated noting of Chinese naval growth (pp. 79-81,86,178) in which China’s naval assertiveness in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Indian Ocean (described as China’s ‘string of pearls’) was noted as a growing challenge to French interests, “what is at stake are our interests throughout the Indian Ocean and Pacific (tr. p. 206).

Conversely, what the Senate report critiqued was French reductions of overall naval strength, including reductions in planned building of one aircraft carrier rather than two, and eight rather than seventeen Aquitaine-class anti-submarine frigates; which meant that “in other words we have reduced [naval] assets while the threats increased” (tr. p. 209). Consequently, the Senate report observed a future weakening of France’s maritime assets in the southern Indian Ocean (“a sharp deterioration in surveillance and intervention capacities on the high seas, tr. p. 166) and in the southwest Pacific (“major capability disruption, with a strong impact on sovereignty and assistance missions in the national maritime areas […] with the withdrawal from active service of the Guardians of the Pacific in 2015. Years 2015 to 2019 appear to be particularly critical” (tr. pp. 166-167).

Defence and national security (2013)

In April 2013 a White Paper was published titled Defence and national security. The highest defense priority listed by it was simple “protect the national territory and French nationals abroad” (p. 47). While it painted a rosy picture of security in Europe (coming before Russia’s incorporation of the Crimea in 2014), France’s “national territory” of course extended outside Europe into the overseas departments and overseas territories. The 2013 White Paper made a point of highlighting (p. 14) that most of the overseas possessions were in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and came complete with around 1.5 million French nationals and resource-rich EEZs. Consequently it reiterated “France’s commitment as a sovereign power and a player in the security of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific (p. 29).

French Indian Ocean interests were highlighted, in particular the threat to them posed by piracy:

“The security of the Indian Ocean, a maritime access to Asia, is a priority for France and for Europe from this point of view […] The fact that the European Union’s first large-scale naval operation was the Atalanta operation against piracy clearly illustrates the importance of the Indian Ocean, not only for France but for Europe as a whole” (p. 56).

In those waters, a significant developing strategic partnership was highlighted whereby “as a neighbour[hood] power in the Indian Ocean, France plays a particular role here, reinforced by the development of privileged relations with India” (p. 56).

In the 2013 White Paper, China was now appearing as a concern (which it had not been in the 2008 White Paper) for France, given that “the equilibrium of East Asia has been radically transformed by the growing might of China” (p. 57). Conversely, the strategic partnership announced with Australia in 2012 was welcomed as showing their convergence on “regional matters relative to the Pacific and the Indian Ocean,” and more widely “it also confirms a renewed interest in a French presence on the part of countries in the region” (pp. 57-58).

National strategy for security of maritime areas (2015)

In October 2015 the inter-ministerial sea committee approved the National strategy for security of maritime areas. In this document, France’s position as a maritime power was reaffirmed:

“Present in all seas and oceans around the world […] France thus has considerable assets which constitute coveted wealth and help to assert its position as a great maritime power. They give us rights, particularly to preserve our sovereignty and our sovereign economic rights […] our maritime area contributes to our rank as a major world power […] confirming its [France’s] rank as a major maritime power and its intention for economic development through sea” (p. 3).

Maritime threats came explicitly from piracy, but also implicitly from China:

Certain powers […] from East Asia […] are developing significant naval capabilities which could be able to counter our freedom of action at sea, pursue territorial ambitions in disputed maritime areas and thus threaten freedom of navigation in international waters” (pp. 4-5).

The multi-missions destroyer (FREMM) Aquitaine (Marine nationale)

French strategic remedies were internal balancing through “maintenance of a good level of ocean-going projection capacity, mainly provided by the resources of the French navy” (p. 49); and partly external balancing to “strengthen maritime cooperation with third-party States” (p. 42). 

France and security in the Asia-Pacific (2014, 2016)

The Ministry of Defence document France and security in the Asia-Pacific was first released in April 2014 and then updated in June 2016. Whereas the 2014 document referred nowhere to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a geographic (and geo-strategic/geopolitical) term, the June 2016 version referred to it repeatedly, three times in Le Drian’s ‘Forward’ and five times in the main text.

Internal and external balancing was apparent in Le Drian’s ‘Forward,’ with strategic partners identified in the region:

“As a state of the Indian and of the Pacific Oceans, owing to its territories and its population, France permanently maintains sovereignty and presence forces there in order to defend its interests and to contribute to the stability of the region alongside its partners, primarily Australia, India, Japan and the United States. The long-existing links with the latter are tightening and France will continue to be committed in all aspects of regional security” (2016: p. 1).

The absence of China as a ‘partner’ was noticeable. Conversely, in a shot across the bow for Chinese restrictions in the South China Sea, an item unmentioned in the 2014 profile, Le Drian pledged that “responding to tensions in the South China Sea, France, as a first-rank maritime and naval Power, will continue to uphold freedom of navigation, to contribute to the security of maritime areas” (2016: p. 1).

In the main text, clear maritime priorities were flagged up. In a new comment, the 2016 paper stated:

“France has started to rebalance its strategic centre of gravity towards the Indo-Pacific, where it is a neighbour[hood] power […] Our armed forces stationed overseas and our permanent military basing in the Indian and the Pacific oceans confer to France a presence which is unique among European countries” (2016: p. 2)

Both the 2014 and 2016 papers stressed France’s maritime presence in the same wordage:

“France is present in all of the world’s oceans, owing to its overseas territories […] and thanks to its blue-water navy […] France’s primary obligation is to protect its territories and population (500,000 in the Pacific and over one million in the Indian Ocean)” (2016: p. 6).

Both papers used identical wording with regard to the geoeconomic significance (“extensive fishing, mineral and energy resources”) of France’s Exclusive Economic Zones, “located mainly in the Pacific (62%) and Indian Oceans (24%),” for which “France performs its protective mission thanks to its defence and security forces stationed in the region” (2016: p. 6).

A new issue, Chinese “reclamation works and the militarization of contested archipelagos” in the South China Sea were seen to “threaten the security of navigation and overflight,” on which France already “regularly exercises its right of maritime and air navigation in the area” (2016: p. 2). 

Looking Forward

On the domestic front, the envisaged spending cuts of 7 percent for the 2016-2019 period were instead replaced in April 2015 by a 4 percent increase of 3.9 billion euros to underpin stronger oceanic maritime strength and with it a strengthened Indo-Pacific profile. Forward planning (Actualisation de la programme militaire 2014/2019) envisages that France “ will therefore consolidate its political commitment in Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific … through its defense cooperation, an active military presence, [and] the development of strategic partnerships” (p. 6). France’s reassertion of its maritime position was completed with the ratification in February 2017 of the ordinance Espaces maritimes de la République Française (‘Maritime spaces of the French Republic’), which emphasized France’s intention to maintain, and defend its position in both the Indian and Pacific oceans. March 2017 witnessed a $4 billion frigate program being launched by the French defense ministry.

Meanwhile, France is actively pursuing Indo-Pacific maritime avenues. Le Drian remarked on conflict potential in the “Indo-Pacific region” at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2016; such that “France will therefore play its part in our collective responsibility to preserve and strengthen the stability and security of this region,” working with “our partners, in particular India, Australia, the United States, Singapore, Malaysia and even Japan,” with China absent from the listing.

In such a vein, the trip to India by Le Drian in September 2016 was the occasion for him to assert that “France confirms here that it is a credible actor of the Indo-Pacific zone, where – as I have been saying ceaselessly we have a prominent role to play” in the future. France’s strengthening links with India were on show in January 2017 at their Dialogue on maritime cooperation, explained by France as a “significant strengthening of cooperation between our respective navies for security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

France’s strengthening links with Australia were on show in March 2017. The Joint Statement drawn up by Marc Ayrault, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, emphasized defense and security cooperation, especially naval, bilaterally and with third countries – “particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.” Given France’s strengthening links with India and Australia it is no surprise to find Le Drian in September 2016 arguing for a France-India-Australia trilateral framework; “we need to think of a three-way partnership that includes India if we want security in the Indo-Pacific region.”

The Third Japan-France Foreign and Defense Ministers Meeting in 2017. (F. De la Mure / MAEDI)

France’s strengthening links with Japan were on show in the Franco-Japanese Joint Statement of January 2017 which talked of common Indo-Pacific concerns (“strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific ocean”), and French naval presence (“a regular and visible naval presence in all maritime areas, including in the Indian and Pacific Oceans”). The visit of the Japanese leader to France in March 2017 was the occasion for France to pledge further military cooperation, “especially on the naval plane in the Pacific.” One sign of this will be France’s powerful Mistral amphibious helicopter carrier leading U.S. and Japanese troops in exercises at Tinian in the West Pacific in May 2017 in an implicit message to China. 


Three Indo-Pacific maritime issues await French attention. In April 2016 at the Shangri-La Dialogue the French Defence Minister Le Drian argued since “the situation in the China seas, for example, directly affects the European Union,” so shouldn’t “the European navies, therefore, coordinate to ensure a presence that is as regular and visible as possible” in those waters?” EU responses remain unclear.

Two Indian Ocean related issues remain for French maritime strategy. Firstly, how far will French naval forces based in the Gulf continue operating against Daesh/ISIS forces in the Middle East, and how far there will be wider jihadist backlash in the Indo-Pacific? Secondly, the EU’s anti-piracy ATALANTA operation in the Gulf of Aden, currently renewed until 2018 and to which France has been contributing naval assets, has so far been run from Northwood in the UK. Given that the UK is due to leave the EU by April 2019, it would be logical for France as a resident power in the region and significant naval power to take over the coordination of the ATALANTA operation, if it continues.

Finally, Chinese maritime cooperation with Russia is of some concern to France. China-Russia joint naval exercises carried out in the Western Pacific and South China Sea help China’s maritime assertiveness in Indo-Pacific waters; but conversely the China-Russia joint naval exercises carried out in the Mediterranean and Black Sea help Russian maritime assertiveness in those European-related waters.

What this study has shown is that French maritime discussions have explicitly rediscovered the geo-economic and geopolitical significance of France’s possessions and strategic interests in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. France has become more active in deploying maritime assets and developing maritime partnerships in the region. This represents a structural shift in France’s maritime focus. Any change of administration, following the French Presidential Elections in April-May 2017, is likely to maintain this self proclaimed “rebalance” to the Indo-Pacific.

David Scott is an independent analyst on Asia-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer, a regular presenter at the NATO Defence College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tallinn in 2017, and the Managing Editor of European Geostrategy. He can be contacted at davidscott366@outlook.com.

Featured Image: France’s Mistral amphibious helicopter carrier ship docks on the Neva River in St. Petersburg November 23, 2009. (Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk)

The Asia Pacific and Europe’s Maritime Security Strategy

European Maritime Security Topic Week

By Dave Andre

In the aftermath of the July 2016 ruling by the United Nation’s Permanent Court of Arbitration that broadly found China’s demarcation claims in the South China Sea to be without legal merit, it became apparent that legal decisions alone would do little to influence the status quo. Considering The Hague’s ruling against the strategic backdrop of power politics in the Asia Pacific, the need for a global maritime presence became clear. This presence connotes a significant maritime challenge for the European Union (EU), which remains a peripheral actor in the maritime security of the Asia-Pacific as several major powers oversee the geopolitical reordering of this critical region. The importance of the region for European trade and business, global economic stability, and international maritime security necessitates that the EU maintain more than just an economic and diplomatic presence in the region. Adding a dedicated maritime presence to the region will involve a balancing act between the competing interests of individual EU members while advancing a comprehensive and unified stance—this goes beyond simple matters of naval capability and capacity. As such, it is important that the international maritime community not treat this presence as a fait accompli, merely awaiting an executable maritime framework.

As the European Council on Foreign Relations summed up in 2013 in reference to Asia, the EU “does not have an automatic seat at the table and therefore must work all the harder to secure its own self-interests.”1 Since then little has changed, as China has increasingly expanded its territorial footprint, the EU has executed an uneven approach to maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region. This ineffectual response leaves Europe open to maritime security threats from afar.

The European Union’s Maritime Domain: A Unique Challenge

Given Europe’s long maritime history it is no surprise that the legal principle for freedom of the seas originated with a European—a Dutch lawyer to be specific—by the name of Hugo Grotius, who in the early seventeenth century wrote, ”Navigation was free to all and no one country could lay claim to the seas on the basis that their navigators were the first to sail on it.”2 Today, that principle exists within the United Nations Convention Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which details provisions for navigation, archipelagic status and transit regimes, EEZs, territorial waters, and settlement of disputes. Today, the European Union faces a dynamic maritime environment with challenges ranging from border security to renewable resources and combating piracy. Of the EUs 28 member states, 22 have a combined coastline that extends 65,993 km encompassing the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.3 The length and breadth of this dynamic maritime environment, when coupled with the competing priorities of member states and coordination with non-member states, makes the EU’s maritime security strategy a unique challenge amongst maritime powers.

The EU addresses this complexity in the European Union’s Maritime Security Strategy (EUMSS), which recognizes the importance of protecting maritime interests worldwide while simultaneously recognizing that success depends on the ability to collaborate across regional and national levels.4 However, since the 2014 adoption of EUMSS, the EU has struggled to balance the myriad regional maritime issues with international maritime issues, showing that a unified maritime strategy for the global maritime domain is still far off. The unfolding situation in the South China Sea is perhaps the best example of the fissures and shortfalls inherent with the EU’s maritime strategy. The EU has so far remained outside the fray, issuing a tepid statement after the UN tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines in July 2016.5 While many see this strategy as a case of prioritizing domestic issues over international issues, the issue is far more complex. The ever-evolving transatlantic relationship between the United States and Europe, the economic influence of China on Europe via initiatives like the One-Belt-One Road framework, and the declining naval power of European navies, all factor into Europe’s support of the maritime order in the Asia-Pacific.

Europe and Asia: A Complex Relationship

As a region, the Asia-Pacific is as dynamic as they come. Militarily, disputed islands, paramilitary forces, and militarization characterize the operating environment. Politically, Chinese realpolitik clashes with liberalism, pitting international governance against the rise of a regional hegemon. Meanwhile, from an economic standpoint the region is home to three of the world’s biggest economies, while over $5 trillion in global trade passes through the seas each year. This geo-political environment, coupled with the complex maritime geography of straits, archipelagic waters, and overlapping maritime claims means that international law is critical to maintaining an orderly system.6 Within this complex milieu lays the maritime challenge—protecting the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) critical to global economic prosperity.

This region holds significant interest for the European Union, but exactly what those interests are differs from member to member. These differences present difficulties for the EU’s development of a unified and actionable strategy in the South China Sea and the Southeast Asia region. China is the EU’s second largest trading partner, as a region ASEAN is the EU’s third largest trading partner, and South Korea, Japan, and India all place within the top ten. Collectively, this trade amounts to almost a trillion euros annually. Furthermore, there are more than 10,000 European companies operating within the Southeast Asia region.

The economic considerations are not solely defined by Europe looking east of the Suez; they are also largely influenced by China’s Eurasian ambitions. China’s One-Belt-One-Road initiative promises significant investment in Europe, especially the struggling economies of the South and East. Likewise, investments by companies such as the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), which is upgrading the port in Piraeus, Greece, illustrate that this economic influence extends past mere business ventures.7 While the One-Belt-One-Road initiative is unlikely to radically alter the geography of trade routes and investment in port upgrades will not alter Greece’s naval posture, these activities do have the potential of altering and influencing the economic interdependence of EU member states. This creates scenarios where Europe needs to tread lightly as they balance economic and diplomatic interests against security interests, while simultaneously recognizing that the preferred balance will be different depending on the individual country.

European Diplomatic Efforts in the Asia-Pacific Maritime Domain

The divisions are not limited to economics. Politically, the EU has struggled to speak with one voice regarding issues within the Asia-Pacific. The EU’s presence in the Asia-Pacific is a complex web of arrangements, policies, dialogues, and statements that seek to balance the competing interests of individual members while advancing a comprehensive and unified stance. Starting in 2007, there have been a number of policy developments pertaining to the EU’s development of a comprehensive maritime strategy. In 2007, the adoption of the Blue Book, an Integrated Maritime Policy laid the groundwork for operational cooperation among member states. While not specifically addressing security concerns, the focus on trade and fisheries provided a template for future maritime security initiatives.A series of initiatives followed—Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008) and the Limassol Declaration (2012)—that recognized the significance of dialogue and cooperation within the regional and international maritime realm as well as the importance of the legal framework laid out by UNCLOS. These policy trends expanded and in 2012, the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia proffered guidelines for resolving disputes within the framework of UNCLOS and stresses the importance of freedom of navigation.9 The policy also notes the economic interdependence between the EU and East Asia, the potentially negative impact of competitive nationalism represented by the South China Sea issues, and the complexity of trans-Atlantic relations with the United States and extra-regional partners like Russia, Australia, New Zealand, and India.10 Furthermore, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), which the EU signed in July 2012, provides the framework for peaceful interactions in the region. Taken together these policies clearly articulate that EU interests are closely tied to those of the Asia-Pacific and the international maritime legal framework.

May 31, 2015 – 14th Asia Security Summit, Singapore– High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini gives a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue. ( Frédérick Moulin 2015 – EU2015 – EEAS)

Beyond policies, the EU maintains a public dialogue—albeit uneven—that further emphasizes and recognizes the importance of the Asia-Pacific and an international maritime framework. It was at the 2013 Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore that the EU was represented as a whole for the first time by High Representative Catherine Ashton. During the dialogues, she referred to the EU’s long-term security plans and comprehensive approach in Asia. Missing from the 2014 dialogues, the EU’s message was one that prioritized concerns in Ukraine, the Middle East, and North Africa over those in far off Asia. While this prioritization of time and resources is notable, even wise, it did little to assuage Asian nations that may be looking to the EU as a model of multilateralism and an alternative to the United States. A notably different tone was struck in the 2015 dialogues, as EU High Representative Federica Mogherini discussed the EU’s, “strong interest in global security.”11 Representative Mogherini made specific mention of freedom of navigation, SLOCs, international law and the importance of promoting cooperation of confrontation and the need for “everyone to play by the same rules.”12

In addition to the Shangri-La dialogues, the EU, France, Germany, Italy, and U.K. signed the G-7 Foreign Ministers’ Declaration on Maritime Security which declares their commitment to “freedoms of navigation and over flight” and to an “international maritime order based upon the principles of international law, in particular as reflected in UNCLOS.”13 At the 2016 G7 Summit in Japan, members reiterated concern “about the situation in the East and South China Seas” and emphasized “the fundamental importance of peaceful management and settlement of disputes.”14 Unsurprisingly, the 2016 Shangri-La dialogues a month later discussed “China’s continued land reclamation and military build-up in the strategic maritime area” at length.i Within this context, the French Defense Minister made clear that joint EU patrols were forthcoming.15 However, a month later, the UN tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines saw the EU struggle to issue a joint statement. And to say the resulting statement was benign is an understatement; among other things it failed to make any mention of sovereignty. Since then, the EU has been notably silent regarding the South China Sea despite growing evidence of China’s continued militarization of a number of islands.

European Presence in the Asia Pacific

Despite the attempts at providing a unified response under a common defense policy, the most active aspects of Europe’s involvement in the Asia Pacific come in bilateral terms. France has made numerous overtures toward supporting FONOPs in the South China Sea. The UK’s Royal Navy has perhaps the largest and most codified presence in the Asia-Pacific, though it is a shadow of the presence that it was until the waning years of the last century. The Five Power Defense Arrangement, the most notable European-Asian arrangement, is a multilateral agreement between the Commonwealth counties of U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia whereby all powers will consult one another in the event of an attack (actual or threatened) against Malaysia or Singapore. This consultation brings no promise of military action or support, but nonetheless is pertinent for its formal acknowledgement of European-Asian mutual interests. Furthermore, four European countries—Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and the U.K.—are members of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).16 ReCAAP, a multilateral counter-piracy operation that stretches from the Gulf of Aden to the East China Sea illustrates the naval capability of some European powers.17 Additionally, in 2016 Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, and the U.K. participated in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) maritime warfare exercise, signaling their support for Asian maritime security.18 Additionally, there are multilateral examples of EU maritime involvement: the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, the Fukushima tsunami that occurred in 2010, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2014 all saw EU involvement.

In Conclusion: It’s Time to Grab a Seat at the Table

Despite policies, dialogues, and statements, the EU lacks a consistent presence in the region, which undermines their ability to influence political and economic events as they unfold. Alongside the 2016 UN tribunal ruling and discussions for a South China Sea Code of Conduct, the EU is losing its seat at the table as the maritime picture takes shape. If the EU expects to maintain influence in the Asia-Pacific it must accept that the geopolitical instability that defines the South China Sea and Asia-Pacific region requires a naval presence to manage risk, promote international order, and decrease the chances of armed conflict.

Setting aside EU institutional politics, there are a number of EU members who have navies capable of global power projection—France, Germany, Italy, the U.K., and Spain. While some members may need to operate in a coalition due to refueling limitations, the capability remains. Overall, the European picture reveals a maritime mindset more focused on the near than the far. This is shortsighted in terms of politics, economics, and military capabilities. Not least because any significant rebalance toward Asia without a corresponding increase in shipbuilding would require a considerable shift in resource allocation. Reversing the current decline in shipbuilding across Europe will take significant and immediate initiative. The EU should take advantage of their long-standing relationship with the U.S. concerning maritime security and their experience working alongside global partners to engender a workable maritime strategy in the South China Sea and the Asia Pacific. With the U.S. increasing its presence in the Europe, there is opportunity for Europe to reinvigorate the Transatlantic Partnership that has defined U.S.-European relations for decades.

Politically, no entity is better poised than the EU to understand the power dynamics and challenges that a regional organization faces when countering the influence of a rising—or in the case of Russia—resurgent hegemonic power. There are relevant lessons to be drawn from the territorial aggression that Russia exhibited in the annexation of the Ukraine. Most notably, that a nation that feels compelled to assume power in a region that they historically view as theirs will not be thwarted by politics alone. Reactionary policies are no substitute for proactive plans. The European Union’s hodgepodge of arrangements, policies, dialogues, and statements regarding the South China Sea, coupled with Chinese economic influence, declining naval power, and an inability to speak and act with one voice are eroding European influence at a time when a new regional order is taking shape in the Asia-Pacific region. To counter this erosion of influence the EU needs a strategy that moves past mere statements that support international norms and the rules laid out in UNCLOS and establish a maritime presence that protects SLOCs throughout the Asia-Pacific.

LT David M. Andre is a former Intelligence Specialist, and has served as an Intelligence Officer and Liaison Officer assigned to AFRICOM. He is currently serving as N2 for COMDESRON SEVEN in Singapore. He can be reached at dma.usn@gmail.com.

The views expressed above are the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official views and are not endorsed by the United States Navy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other body of the United States Government.


1. “What is Europe’s role in Asia-Pacific?” European Council on Foreign Relations, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_what_is_europes_role_in_asia_pacific

2. Bruce Farthing, Farthing on International Shipping, Business of Shipping Series, LLP, London Hong Kong, 1997, p. 7.

3. In comparison, the United States has 19,924 km of coastline, while Russia has 37,653 km.

4. European Commission, “European Union Maritime Security Strategy: Responding Together to Global Challenges,” https://ec.europa.eu/maritimeaffairs/policy/maritime-security_en

5. “Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the EU on the Award rendered in the Arbitration between the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China,” European Council, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/07/15-south-china-sea-arbitration/

6. S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Policy paper. Good Order at Sea. https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/PR090427_Good_Order_at_Sea_in_SEA.pdf

7. Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael Policy Paper. China’s Maritime Silk Roadhttps://www.clingendael.nl/sites/default/files/China_Maritime_Silk_Road.pdf.

8. Internaitonal Maritime Security Law by James Kraska, Raul Pedrozo, p. 62.

9. EU-Asia Centre, “South China Sea: Background Note,” http://www.eu-asiacentre.eu/documents/uploads/pub_112_south_china_sea_background_note.pdf.

10. “Guidelines on the EU’S Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia”, Council of European Unionhttp://eeas.europa.eu/archives/docs/asia/docs/guidelines_eu_foreign_sec_pol_east_asia_en.pdf

11. Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2015 https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/6254_en

12. Ibid.

13. G7 Foreign Ministers’ Declaration on Maritime Security in Lübeck, 15 April 2015, Federal Foreign Office, http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Infoservice/Presse/Meldungen/2015/150415_G7_Maritime_Security.html?nn=479796.

14. Whitehouse, “G7 Ise-Shima Leaders’ Declaration,” https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/05/27/g7-ise-shima-leaders-declaration.

15. Kelvin Wong: Reflections on the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue, https://www.iiss.org/en/shangri-la%20voices/blogsections/2016-588c/kelvin-wong—reflections-on-the-2016-shangri-la-dialogue-2789.

16. Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), http://www.recaap.org/AboutReCAAPISC.aspx.

17. “Bridging Asia and Europe Through Maritime Connectivity China’s Maritime Silk Road and Indonesia’s Maritime Axis” European Institute for Asian Studies. March 2015. http://www.eias.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Bridging_Asia_Europe_2015.pdf

Featured Image: Members of the welcoming ceremony band play as British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Daring arrives at a port area of Huangpu River in Shanghai December 10, 2013. (Photo by Yang Yi/Asianewsphoto)