The French military is coming to Oahu to train as the United States and France revamp their strategies in the Pacific amid tensions with China.

U.S. Pacific Air Force spokeswoman 1st. Lt. Amber Kelly-Herrard said French pilots will arrive on June 29 for several days of training. French forces will be flying a variety of warplanes, including Rafale fighter jets, A400M Atlas transport planes and A330 refueling planes, according to a tweet from France Pacific Command. 

Rear Adm. Jean-Mathieu Rey, head of the Tahiti-based France Pacific Command, visited the island last month to meet with U.S. military and civilian officials. Rey took command in August and is overseeing a push to solidify relationships in a region beset by tensions with China. France is the only European country to maintain a permanent military presence in the region.

A French F-2 Rafale flies over Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, Jan. 8, 2016. OIR is the coalition intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nathan Lipscomb)
Rafale fighter jets will be flying over Hawaii later this month when the French military comes to Oahu to train. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force/2016

The 2021 iteration of Congress’s annual defense spending bill called for the creation a new multinational “Movement Coordination Center Pacific” that would coordinate the movement of friendly nations’ military aircraft and vessels across the region.

Heightened tensions with China have increased the training and operations tempo for many military aviation units across the Pacific. The U.S. Air Force recently began spreading its planes around the region, with frequent flights to airstrips across distant islands to make them harder targets for Chinese missiles.

The Chinese military has increasingly asserted control over the South China Sea in the western Pacific, leading to increasing confrontations with Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries that also border the sea. At the same time U.S. warships and planes frequently move through in what the Pentagon calls “freedom of navigation operations.” 

With one-third of all global trade traveling through the South China Sea, rising hostilities have attracted global concern. France’s interests in the Pacific run deep.

France lost most of its vast empire after World War II, but it maintained French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific.

The Chinese government has argued that nearly the entire sea is its sovereign territory. Last summer then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Chinese diplomats in Hawaii to discuss disputes in the South China Sea along with other issues. 

Shortly after the Hawaii meeting Pompeo announced that the U.S. officially rejected most of China’s claims. In January, Beijing granted the China Coast Guard authority to fire on any non-Chinese vessel in the South China Sea.

France is the only European country with a permanent military presence in the Pacific, with territories French Polynesia and New Caledonia. Courtesy: French Military/2019

Several countries quickly put the new Chinese policy to the test, including France, which in March sent a nuclear attack submarine into the South China Sea and docked a navy warship in Vietnam, a former colony.

“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,” French Ambassador to Vietnam Nicolas Warnery told Vietnamese newspaper VnExpress International.

Last month, French forces joined the American and Japanese militaries in a joint exercise in Japan. It was the first time French troops trained in Japan. Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters that France is “a like-minded country that shares with Japan the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

French military officials didn’t respond to requests for comment about training in Hawaii, but posts on France Pacific Command’s official Twitter account show that Rey met with officials at Camp Smith, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Waikiki during his visit last month.

He also met with officials in charge of coordinating disaster relief operations and tracking transnational crime in the Pacific.

Relations between the European Union and China had been improving and they were set to pass an historic trade pact that had the support of France’s President Emmanuel Macron.

But the European Union voted to freeze the deal last month after Beijing sanctioned European critics of its recent human rights record, and Chinese ships staked out territory in the Philippines earlier this year.

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