Source: Yo-Jung Chen

China’s aggressive territorial push in the South China Sea has resulted in turning this busy international trade route into one of the most volatile spots in the world.

The U.S.-led international efforts to defend the freedom of navigation guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), aiming at preventing the entire South China Sea from becoming an exclusive Chinese lake, has just received a powerful boost in the form of the July 12 ruling of The Hague-based UN Permanent Court of Arbitration. Much to China’s anger, most of its sovereignty claims over the South China Sea are rejected in this ruling.

To the surprise of many, a seemingly unrelated European power, France, has announced its intention of coordinating the navies of fellow European Union nations to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations or FONOPs in South China Sea. On June 5, at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian mentioned this initiative for joint EU patrols of “the maritime areas of Asia” and for a “regular and visible presence there.”

Although China was not named in Le Drian’s speech (China is not the only country with sovereignty claims in the South China Sea), the French initiative was generally interpreted as a bad news for Beijing, who was already irritated by what it sees as “outside interference” by the United States and its allies in China’s territorial feuds with countries bordering South China Sea.

From a strictly strategic viewpoint, France’s announced plan will not have a determining impact on the situation in the South China Sea. After all, despite being a major military power with global reach, France’s military presence in the region is limited. Besides, outside of France, what other EU nation has a permanent naval and air presence in the Pacific?