France is increasing its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, sending warships through the South China Sea and planning air exercises to help counter China’s military build-up in disputed waters.

In late May, the French assault ship Dixmude and a frigate sailed through the disputed Spratly Islands and around a group of reefs that China has turned into islets, pushing back against Beijing’s claim to own most of the resource-rich South China Sea.

“Our patrol involved passing close to these islets to obtain intelligence with all the sensors it is possible to use in international waters,” the Dixmude’s commanding officer, Jean Porcher, said.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, a researcher from the Hudson Institute think tank who was on board, said “several Chinese frigates and corvettes” tailed the French vessels.

Porcher said the ship maintained “cordial” radio contact with Chinese military vessels, “which were present in the area until we left”.

But France, which along with Britain is the only European nation to regularly send its navy into the region, has also waded into the dispute, sending its ships into the South China Sea three to five times a year.

In August, the air force will stage its biggest-ever exercises in Southeast Asia as part of a strategy to mark France’s presence in a region that is home to 1.5 million French citizens in the country’s overseas territories.

Three Rafale fighter jets, one A400M troop transporter and a C135 refuelling tanker will fly from Australia to India, with several stops along the way.

The sea and air operations follow a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron last month to Australia, where he spoke of the need to protect the Indo-Pacific region from “hegemony” – a veiled reference to Beijing’s growing might.

He stressed that France, which will be the last country in the European Union after Britain leaves the bloc to have territories in the Pacific, did not want to antagonise China.

But a “strong Indo-Pacific axis” was needed to ensure respect for freedom of navigation and aviation in the region, he told Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

France is protecting its territories in the South China Sea and has been pushing back in the area since 2016 with their navies conducting a visible presence in the area.

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