- - Thursday, May 14, 2015

A French naval flotilla left Singapore and arrived in Shanghai on May 9 for a weeklong visit, fueling a wave of speculation that the timing of the rare naval visit, the first since 2013, signals the two sides may be ready to cut a deal.

At the center of the intense international interest is the French choice of the flagship for the flotilla: The Mistral-class helicopter carrier Dixmude, the type of naval ship that China covets and which the French have built two extra new units that are now sitting in a harbor awaiting their fate. The two new warships were bought by Russia, but delivery was postponed indefinitely by the French in protest after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine gambit.

In June 2011, Russia and France signed a $1.7 billion deal to sell Moscow the two Mistral-class ships, leading to a round of protests from some NATO members, especially the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and some prominent American politicians such as Sen. John McCain. Critics argued the ships posed a potential danger to the NATO naval balance and would include military secrets, as Russia insisted on including some classified NATO technologies and designs in the ships.

But the deal proceeded anyway and the first of the two ships, the Vladivostok, was launched in mid-October 2013. Russia sent 200 sailors to France to take part in the sea trials, with the delivery date set for late 2014.

However, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, especially the blatant military annexation of Crimea in March 2014, led French President Francois Hollande to postpone delivery of the Vladivostok to Russia until Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine is reversed. By the time the deadline for the first Mistral delivery came and passed in late 2014, France had already completed the second Mistral ship, the Sevastopol.

In early 2015, Mr. Hollande announced that the delivery of both ships to Russia would be delayed indefinitely due to the tensions in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe. Russia responded by giving Mr. Hollande two options: Deliver the two ships as scheduled or refund the $1.53 billion paid out by the Kremlin.

The collapse of that deal set the stage for tense international speculation as to where the two Mistral ships, currently docked at a French port, will eventually end up. It has become increasingly unlikely France will be able to deliver the two ships to Russia after all.

President Hollande has announced that “all options for the Mistrals will be entertained.” That could include a wide range of possibilities, from selling them to a third country such as Brazil or India; scuttling the deal to save maintenance and upkeep costs; or simply incorporating the two vessels into the French Navy.

One of the more likely options, however, is to sell them to China. Beijing has embarked on the world’s most aggressive naval buildup to enforce China’s ambitious maritime claims and ocean expansion, from the East and South China Seas to the Indian Ocean, notably including the Persian Gulf region. Although China has its own Type 071 amphibious transport dock ships similar to the Mistral, the Chinese warships lack the technology and capabilities of the Mistrals. China is also greatly alarmed by Japan’s robust efforts in acquiring large, advanced Izumo-class helicopter carriers that are similar in capabilities to the French Mistrals. As a bonus in Beijing’s eyes, the Mistral purchase would also effectively undercut the Western arms sales sanctions imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.

The Mistral would be almost perfect for China’s naval needs — an advanced amphibious assault vessel capable of carrying close to two dozen Chinese military helicopters, several dozen tanks, or close to 500 troops. That’s a significant payload to bring to bear against any of China’s maritime rivals in the region, including Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as well as possibly India in the Indian Ocean.

This week’s French naval port call to Shanghai is the first time a Mistral-class ship has docked in China.

It is believed the aim of the visit is to allow Chinese naval leaders and experts time to examine the vessel in order to decide whether they want to buy the two Mistral-class vessels first promised to Russia.

Mr. Putin’s government is furious that France is shopping the Mistrals to another buyer after Moscow already paid for the ships. Russia’s hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin warned France that Paris cannot sell the Russian vessels without first gaining approval from Moscow.

But that approval from Russia to sell the ships to China seems more likely after Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said last month that France should either deliver the two Mistrals to Russia or refund Moscow’s money.

The refunding option offered by Moscow strongly implies that Russia would not object to the sale of the ships to China. A week after Mr. Peskov’s statement, the Dixmude showed up in Shanghai so the Chinese could take a look.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected] and @Yu_miles.

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