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French Navy Chief In Japan As Rubis-Class SSN Pays Rare Visit To Guam

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The Chief of Staff of the French Navy (Marine Nationale) Admiral Vandier met with his Japanese counterpart Admiral Hiroshi Yamamura in Tokyo yesterday. Meanwhile, the Rubis-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) Emeraude made a rare port of call in Guam. The two events are connected and fit right in line with France' strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.

Admiral Vandier declared via Twitter:

Our two countries share many maritime interests in the Indopacific area. Together, we reaffirmed our commitment to respect for international law, freedom of navigation and multilateralism. Our two navies cooperate regularly. This is evidenced by the first amphibious exercise carried out with the Japanese in 2017 (Arc 17 in Guam) and the interactions in 2019 in the Bay of Bengal between the French CSG and two Japanese destroyers for exercise La Pérouse. In 2021, many interactions will take place between our two navies and will constitute opportunities to share our experience and develop our operational cooperation.
Worries about China’s behavior
Talking to AFP during his visit in Tokyo, Admiral Vandier voiced concerns about China’s “conquering behavior” regarding territorial waters. He noted that “the balance of military power is changing extremely rapidly”, the number of Chinese naval platforms “having exceeded that of the US Navy”. “Little by little, the military balances which had prevailed since the end of World War II are being reshuffled”, he declared, adding that the Chinese “pressure” “worries”.


“In terms of freedom of navigation, yes [China worries France as well]. The reclamation of the China Sea and the sanctuarization of the territorial waters in it as a result of the reclamation is the subject of a controversy brought before the United Nations. China has a very assertive, very conquering behavior in terms of territorial waters”,


Admiral Vandier, Chief of Staff of the French Navy
Regarding the upcoming new administration in the United States, Vandier said there is:

“a concern on the part of the Japanese about American disengagement from the new administration, with a stronger focus on domestic issues and perhaps less involvement on the international scene. Donald Trump had made a rather powerful demonstration of the dangers of China. Here, one can perhaps feel a concern about a less firm relationship on the part of the American administration […] In Australia or Japan, multilateralism is an antidote to concerns”
Naval News‘ Japan-based contributor, Yoshihiro Inaba said:

In recent years, the defense cooperation between Japan and France has deepened. For example, the French-Japanese Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) came into force in 2019, and in the same year, the JMSDF DDH “Izumo” and DD “Murasame” conducted a joint training with Charles de Gaulle CSG in the Indian Ocean. In addition, France is a partner country of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision promoted by Japan, and is also a Pacific nation like Japan. If Charles de Gaulle were to call in Japan, it would be a very momentous occasion for both France and Japan, and conversely, it would be a very difficult situation for the neighboring countries, especially China, which are disturbing the international order. However, what makes Charles de Gaulle special to the Japanese is that, unlike the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers, she is capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Japan has a longstanding policy of not allowing nuclear weapons on its territory. In order to protect this, the Japanese may confirm in advance whether or not Charles de Gaulle is deploying with ASMP-A nuclear weapons.


Yoshihiro Inaba, Japanese Defense Expert
Collin Koh, South East Asia Maritime Security expert told Naval News:

At the last Shangri-La Dialogue, the visit of Charles de Gaulle was timed with Minister Parly’s speech. This planned visit to Japan would reflect the growing importance France (and Japan) is placing on cultivating closer strategic relations, based on a convergence of values. This is not to say that Japan is looking away from the US; on the contrary, it’s more likely that Tokyo will seek to not only maintain but also enhance its traditional alliance with the US. But it’s also increasingly clear that Japan isn’t going to play second fiddle to the US. Especially during Shinzo Abe’s tenure as prime minister, Japan has reached out to regional partners in search for a bigger security role for itself that can complement the alliance with the US yet by no means just beholden to it. And in this regard, France comes to play a role. I understand Japan is discussing enhanced strategic ties with UK too.
The admiral mentioned about Japan’s concern about US disengagement; to an extent it’s true, but there seems to be at least some cautious optimism on the part of Japan for an reinvigorated US engagement with the region under the Biden Administration. But until the coming January, it still pays to cultivate closer strategic links with likeminded regional players as an “insurance” against the evolving strategic uncertainties in this region, not least of course the China factor looms large in the minds.


Collin Koh, South East Asia Maritime Security
French Carrier Strike Group visiting Japan in 2021 ?
Charles de Gaulle sailing alongside JS Izumo during La Perouse exercise in 2019

Admiral Vandier announced during his visit in Tokyo that “in 2021, many interactions will take place between our two navies and will constitute opportunities to share our experience and develop our operational cooperation.”


Could this mean that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is likely to visit Japan ? This would be a first and send a strong political message. The Japanese reportedly made such a request back in 2019 but the French CSG stopped on the outskirts of the Pacific Ocean: In Singapore. Back in 2017 the “mission Jeanne D’Arc” (a Mistral-class LHD and a La Fayette-class frigate) conducted the first ever French/Japanese/American amphibious exercise in Guam. Therefore seeing the Charles de Gaulle stopping in Japan for the first time ever next year remains a possibility, in our opinion anyways.


Contacted by Naval News, the Marine Nationale’s public affairs could not comment on the future deployment of the aircraft carrier.


French Navy Submarine And Support Vessel in Guam
SANTA RITA, Guam (Nov. 30, 2020) Naval Base Guam tug boats assist as the French Navy Rubis-class attack submarine FS Émeraude (S-604) moors against the French Navy Loire-class tender and support vessel FS Seine (A-604) at U.S. Naval Base Guam (NBG). Émeraude and Seine are currently in port at NBG as part of their long-term deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd class Kelsey J. Hockenberger)

Meanwhile, French Navy Rubis-class nuclear powered submarine (SSN) Emeraude and Loire-Class support & assistance vessel (BSAM type) Seine reached the US Navy base of Guam on 30 November. The two vessels previously stopped in Australia, and conducted some exercises with the Royal Australian Navy.


This is not the first time a French SSN deploys to the Pacific Ocean but such events are rather rare. It has to be noted that this deployment was never publicly disclosed prior to the port of call in Australia. It shows that the ageing Rubis-class SSN is still capable of long distance and long duration deployments. The Rubis-class will be gradually replaced by the new Suffren-class SSN over the coming decade.


This is guess work/speculation from our part but it would not be surprising at all to see Emeraude stop in the Philippines next, with Naval Group actively engaged in discussions for the procurement of French submarines.


The Indo-Pacific region: a priority for France


The above moves and developments all fall in line with France’ strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, as outlined last year in an official French MoD document, France’s strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific are :

  • Defend and ensure the integrity of its sovereignty, the protection of its nationals, territories and EEZ.
  • Contribute to the security of regional environments through military and security cooperation.
  • Maintain a free and open access to the commons, in cooperation with France’s partners, in a context of global strategic competition and challenging military environments.
  • Assist in maintaining strategic stability and balances through a comprehensive and multilateral action.

France is present in the region via its overseas territories (Mayotte and La Réunion islands, Scattered Islands and French Southern and Antarctic Territories, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia and Clipperton) and 93% of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The region is home to 1.5 million French people, as well as 8,000 armed forces personnel stationed in the region. In addition to the French Navy has vessels based in the region and assets from mainland France do deploy to the region, including submarines as is currently the case with the submarine in Guam.

 
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