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France sends ship to challenge Beijing over South China Sea – ‘Playing with fire'

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A French frigate docked at Cam Ranh Port in Vietnam on Tuesday for helicopter repairs, according to local reports. But the French ambassador to Vietnam said the frigate’s visit was in support of “freedom of navigation”, challenging China’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea.

Marc Razafindranaly, French defence attache in Vietnam, said the frigate Prairial had left Tahiti of French Polynesia on January 1 and reached Cam Ranh Port in south central Khanh Hoa Province on Tuesday.

The Prairial is a Floreal-class frigate, spanning 93.5 meters and has a maximum speed of 37 kph.

The French embassy in Hanoi added the frigate docked in Vietnam as part of a military cooperation framework.

Ambassador Nicolas Warnery added: “The frigate’s visit at this time is meant to deliver a message in support of freedom of navigation in the air and at sea, which is shared by both Vietnam and France.”

READ MORE: South China Sea: ‘Real and increasing’ risk US and Beijing will ‘stumble into war’

It comes as Mark J. Valencia, maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia, suggested France is “playing with fire” in the disputed region.

He said in the South China Morning Post: “It won’t take much to convince China that France is supporting US efforts to contain it.

“This is the signal France is sending by participating in joint exercises with India, Australia, Japan and the US. (…)

“The French are going to have to decide if they really want to stick their neck out economically to further US hegemony in the region – and the American myth that freedom of commercial navigation is under threat.”

France has already carried out operations in the disputed waters, and will join military transits with the US and UK later this year.

In February, French nuclear attack submarine SNA Emeraude conducted a patrol in the South China Sea.

Defence Minister Florence Parly tweeted a picture of the submarine, and said the journey was “striking proof of our French Navy’s capacity to deploy far away and for a long time together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners”.

China did not react to the passage, which Antoine Bondaz, research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research, told outlet France24 was because it was not a serious threat.

He added: “Beijing had to judge if the stakes were worth it.”

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China has previously been criticised for its aggressive claims of “sovereignty” in the South China Sea.

The US heavily opposes China’s maritime sovereignty claims and on several occasions has sent its own warships to the disputed waters to promote “freedom of the seas”.

But experts Admiral James Stavridis and author Elliot Ackerman warned there is a “real and increasing” risk US and Beijing will “stumble into war” over the competing claims.

They told Time Magazine: “It will require not only imagination, but the hard work of creating a national strategy that can employ all our considerable tools of state – diplomacy, economics, military deterrence, culture, communications – if we are to avoid sleepwalking into a 21st century war.”



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