France and Philippines to discuss potential defense agreement, says French envoy

France and the Philippines will begin talks next month on a visiting forces agreement that would allow troops from each country to hold exercises in the other’s territory, the French ambassador said Thursday. French and Philippine officials will meet in Paris next month for talks on a visiting forces agreement, French Ambassador to the Philippines Marie Fontanel said. She said the defense chiefs of both countries agreed in Manila last December to pursue such an accord. “We will have an opportunity in May to maybe start officially the negotiations or, at least, discuss the modalities,” Fontanel said at a news conference with French Ambassador to the Indo-Pacific Marc Abensour. The Philippines currently has status-of-forces agreements with the U.S. and Australia. The agreements provide a legal framework for the entry of foreign forces into a country. Manila has pursued similar agreements with other countries, including Japan and France, amid escalating disputes with China in the South China Sea. Since last year, Chinese and Philippine coast guard ships and accompanying vessels have been involved in high seas skirmishes which included minor collisions and injuries to Philippine navy personnel near disputed shoals in the contested waters. In addition to China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are also involved in the long-running territorial disputes, a potential Asian flashpoint that could bring the U.S. and China into a collision course if disputes escalate into a major conflict. France has been boosting its security engagements with the Philippines. A French navy ship is joining U.S. and Philippine navy ships in and near the disputed South China Sea as part of largescale combat-readiness exercises by longtime treaty allies Manila and Washington that started Monday. Abensour renewed France’s commitment to helping maintain freedom of navigation and overflight and respect for the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in the region. strongly criticized the exercises, saying the Philippines was “ganging up” with countries from outside Asia, and warned that the drills could instigate a confrontation and undermine regional stability. The Philippine military dismissed China’s criticism, saying the drills are aimed at boosting Manila’s territorial defense and are not directed at any particular country.