France joins Japan and the US in military exercises in the Pacific

The Landing Helicopter Dock "Tonnerre" takes part in joint exercises with Japanese and US marines in Japan, 11-17 May 2021.
The Landing Helicopter Dock "Tonnerre" takes part in joint exercises with Japanese and US marines in Japan, 11-17 May 2021. © Ministry of Armed Forces 2017 - 2021

French, Japanese and US troops launched their first-ever joint military drill on Tuesday in southwestern Japan, further strengthening an alliance that has been bolstered by China's growing assertiveness in the region, and worries about a possible invasion of Taiwan by mainland forces.


The exercises, codenamed Arc-21, are taking place at the Kirishima training area on Japan's southern Kyushu peninsula. According to a statement by Japan's Ministry of Defence, troops from Japan's Ground Self Defence Force (GSDF) will be joined by members of the US 3rd Marine Division. The French have sent two vesels: the helicopter carrier Tonnerre and the frigate Surcouf. 

Nikkei Asia notes that the training is "the first time for Japanese, US and French troops to conduct joint field exercises in Japan."

Rear Admiral Jean-Mathieu Rey, in an interview with The Diplomat on 13 April, says that France joining the drills is intended to "ensure a regular presence" of French warcraft in the Indo-Pacific region, and to "strengthen regional partnerships".

In itself this is nothing new, Socialist Senator Alain Richard, a former Minister of Defence, told RFI. "We've become accustomed to being considered a contributor in the region," he says.

Chinese agression

Recent developments have, however, changed the parameters. 

"The public willingness of the Chinese government to use force to achieve some of its political goals in the region," and an increasing "confrontation with the neighboring countries over the fate of different islands or rocks in the South China Sea," in addition to "polarisation over Taiwan" have created growing worries among China's neighbours, the EU and the US, says Richard.

"The change of behavior of the Chinese authorities is destroying trust in them, by their own initiatives" he says.

The French Ministry of Defence's "Strategic Update 2021" warns that "the People’s Republic of China ... has doubled its defence budget since 2012, making it the second largest in the world, while expanding its nuclear arsenal and showing new ambitions in terms of power projection." 

Read: Global military spending rises to $2 trillion despite pandemic

The French Defence Strategy in the Indo-Pacific 2019,highlights the "global strategic competition between the United State and China" which, through its aim to "redefine the balance of power"  risks a "more direct" collision with American interests.

Worried by this, Washington seems to be rallying its democratic allies into a global anti-China coalition. In 2007, the US gladly joined the Quadrilateral Dialogue ("Quad") proposed by then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

The Quad also counts India and Australia among its members. The structure was heavily criticised by China, fell apart after two years, but was revamped in 2017 during a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). The central idea is to form a buffer against China's Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure project that spans large parts of Asia, Africa and eastern Europe.

Asian Nato?

France was happy to engage in some of the military exercises that Quad countries were organising. In April, the Tonnerre and the Surcouf - on their way to Japan - made a port call at the Indian city of Kochi. The two warships then sailed to the Bay of Bengal to take part in the France-led joint naval exercise, La Pérouse, involving ships from India, Australia, Japan and the United States. 

Read: France joins forces with India, US in China's Pacific backyard

France currently deploys 7,000 defense personnel, 15 warships and 38 aircraft in the Indo-Pacific area. Their "primary mission is the protection of French territory," says Rear Admiral Rey, with the islands of Mayotte, La Réunion, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia together accounting for some 1.6 million French citizens.

France deploys some 7,000 troops in the Indo-Pacific region.
France deploys some 7,000 troops in the Indo-Pacific region. © France Ministry of Defence 2019

But in spite of warnings by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who recently worried that the "Quad + France" could turn into an "Asian Nato," the loose alliance is a far cry from the Transatlantic Partnership, says Richard. "I don't see any formal alliance," he insists, pointing out that even the birth of Nato took a long time and came about only after "a very intense debate within the US administration and Congress," before the Americans committed themselves to an alliance "with so many implications," he says.

Chinese exercises

Informal or not, the Quad, and France's participation in its military manoevres, have drawn China's ire. 

Initially Beijing ridiculed the loose alliance and described France's participation as "a publicity stunt". But on 10 May, one day before the Arc-21 amphibious exercises, China's hard-line Global Times reported a "joint cross-sea landing drill" involving Chinese PLA forces. This was clearly aimed at "contradicting those in Taiwan and elsewhere who believe the Chinese mainland is incapable of organising a large-scale, joint amphibious landing operation on the island."

The article adds that this is "one of the reasons why critics of Beijing do not think a reunification-by-force operation is possible".

Taiwan invasion?

The big question is: will the US and its allies be willing to stand up against China in case of an invasion of Taiwan?

According to Richard, the US "Taiwan Relations Act (TRA)" isn't enough anymore to guarantee the status quo of Taiwan as a semi-separate state. 

The TRA became law in 1979 when the US officially recognised Beijing, but wanted to continue protecting Taiwan through regular arms sales, and patrols by the US 7th Fleet. 

During the National People's Congress in March 2020, China's Premier, Li Keqiang, presenting his annual work report, dropped the word "peaceful" from the standard formula "peaceful reunification with Taiwan".  The implications of the omission shocked many

"The Chinese have been developing a military capability over the last  15 or 20 years," says Richard. "A country which becomes richer, becomes better armed," even if it is not in an intense crisis area.

"But they are creating a crisis because of their their obvious willingness to use force against their neighbours," says Richard.

If the US should stand idly by, Washington will pay a "very heavy price if they refuse to react militarily in the face of a military aggression". It may "weaken very deeply their credibility as an ally, everywhere in the world," the former French defence minister concluded.

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