France and AUKUS: Bouncing Back to Live up to Pacific Challenges Briefings de l’Ifri, 3 November 2022
Back in September 2021, the announcement of AUKUS – the defense partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) was a shock to Paris.
Not only it meant the brutal conclusion of a submarine deal signed in 2016, but it also provoked a major breach of confidence in France’s relations with its three key partners – shedding crude light on the divergences of approaches regarding the best way to salvage the rules-based order and address the China challenge. This initiative, intended to be a coordinated response to the Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific, called into question France’s strategic positioning in the region.
One year after, however, AUKUS does not seem to have marked a major turning point regarding the French strategy in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the Pacific. After an immediate aftershock, France's bilateral relations with Washington, Canberra and to an extent London gradually recovered. Political and strategic discussions at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2022, the recent visits of the Australian Prime minister and minister of Defense in France and numerous bilateral calls at the end of Summer between French and Australian political and military leaders have pointed to a positive dynamic for an improved strategic cooperation in the region.
Rather than prompting a radical change in the France's Indo-Pacific strategy, AUKUS highlighted a fault line between the strategic/political rhetoric level and the operational level of defense cooperation regarding the French engagement in this region. The multiple maritime security and climate change challenges in the Pacific Islands region require France to cooperate closely with its regional partners, starting with Australia, and continue to promote effective multilateralism. In addition, the growing risks of high-intensity conflicts in the vicinity of the Pacific Islands region, particularly in the Taiwan Strait and/or in the South China Sea, require for France to speed up the strengthening of its interoperability with its regional allies in the coming years and probably to decide on the role it would like to - and be able to - concretely support its own interest and allies.