France is proposing that European navies coordinate patrols in Asian waters to reinforce a rules-based maritime order as other countries including India and Canada flagged concern about rising tension in the South China Sea.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue yesterday, explained why the South China Sea dispute in Asia should also concern Europe and the rest of the world.
If the laws of the sea are not respected in this region, they could also be challenged in the Arctic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea, he said.
Hence, France will urge European navies to ensure a "regular and visible" presence in the South China Sea.
"If we want to contain the risk of conflict, we must defend this right, and defend it ourselves," Mr Le Drian said. The French navy has been deployed three times in the South China Sea so far this year.
Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, speaking at the same security summit organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, pledged to increase his country's engagement in the Asia-Pacific : "We are dedicated to building up our past contributions as we adjust to an evolving international dynamic and reinforce a rules-based international order."
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, a vital waterway for global trade.
China has reclaimed large tracts of land from the sea to bolster its claim. It has also made clear that it will not accept an upcoming ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration - despite China being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In response, the United States has sailed its ships close to the newly created islands in what it calls operations to reinforce the principle of "freedom of navigation" in international waters.
The French and Canadian pledges came after Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar urged a peaceful settlement of the South China Sea spat based on international law.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), a security alliance of nations in Europe and North America, made the same call. Its military committee chair, General Petr Pavel, said it is keen to support nations in the region willing to develop defence capabilities or share intelligence and best practices in maritime security.
Analysts said the growing interest from other parties risks turning the territorial dispute into a wider contest for strategic and diplomatic influence that could eclipse Asean's role."It feels like this is going further and further away from Asean's control," said Centre for Strategic and International Studies associate fellow Phuong Nguyen.
Vietnam's Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh voiced similar concerns. The "deteriorating" security situation, if not addressed promptly, will likely result in an arms race and "strategic rivalry of powers with disastrous consequences and unpredictable consequences".
Vietnam, he said, will not take the side of one country against another but advocate transparency and "respect for community interests".
Dr Zhu Feng, who heads Nanjing University's China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea, urged Asean to undertake "diplomatic activism" by trying to mediate and facilitate dialogue.
Former Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong said the immediate challenge for Asean was to "bring down the temperature".
Asean has unwittingly been forced into the ring with the US and China, he told The Straits Times. "We don't want to get involved with any contestation between the two big powers... we are best served by staying on the ringside."