WASHINGTON — The United Kingdom and France reaffirmed on Monday they plan to send elements of their navies through the South China Sea, fulfilling a promise they made during the recent meeting of defense ministers in Singapore.
The two NATO navies will make the passage to support freedom of navigation operations in response to China’s militarization of the Spratly and Parcel islands. The Pentagon has stepped up its sailing and flights near the disputed islands to underscore its resolve on open passage.
China has claimed all of the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea despite counterclaim by several other nations. It has moved to militarize many of the islands as well as the ones is has constructed.
The Spratly and Paracel island chains are in the middle of international shipping lanes, with an estimated $6 trillion in trade carried by ships each year through those waters.
“They’re freedom of navigation operations,” Mattis said during the Shangra-Lai conference in Singapore. “And you’ll notice there’s only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them. But it’s international waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation. So we’ll continue that.”
It was unclear when the U.K. and French ships would conduct the sail through. In response, China conducted military drills over the weekend near the disputed islands, China’s official PLA Daily said. The newspaper said the drills involved three target drones making flyovers of a ship formation at varying heights and directions to practice warding off air attacks.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo restated the U.S insistence for freedom of navigation during his visit to China last week to brief Chinese officials in the aftermath of the U.S-North Korea meeting.
Pompeo “reaffirmed our deep concerns about the building and militarization of outposts in the South China Sea, as those actions increase tensions, complicate and escalate disputes, endanger the free flow of trade, and undermine regional stability”, the US State Department said in a statement sent to the media.