France: the leading European power in the Indo-Pacific in James Bowen (Ed.), Europe’s Indo-Pacific Embrace: Global partnerships pour regional resilience, Perth US-Asia Center, Konrad Adenauer Shiftung, 16 September 2021
In May 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech at the Garden Island Naval Base in Sydney, Australia, where he outlined a French strategy for the Indo-Pacific. With this speech, France formally positioned itself as an ‘Indo-Pacific power’ and became the first European country to adopt the concept as a regional framework. France’s approach to the region reflects unique sensitivities. It has also been the driving force for broader European engagement with the Indo-Pacific.
France’s Indo-Pacific strategy is heavily influenced by its overseas territories of Mayotte and La Réunion, the Scattered Islands, and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories in the Indian Ocean, and New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia, and Clipperton Island in the Pacific. The region is home to 1.5 million French citizens, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans comprise more than 90 per cent of France’s large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which spans 11 million km². The French Government has formed trade and security partnerships with important Indo-Pacific countries and maintains vital maritime routes in the region. As the primary theatre of Sino-American strategic rivalry, the stability of the Indo- Pacific is under growing threat. Furthermore, the depletion of natural resources, impacts of climate change, territorial disputes, and violations of the Law of the Sea all threaten the regional status quo. There is now a wide recognition that the deterioration of the security environment in the Indo-Pacific puts French interests at risk.
From his earliest days in office, Macron made it clear that he wanted France to play a central role in global governance and multilateralism by upholding values and principles. He has also repeatedly underlined the risks of Chinese hegemony and the need for France to develop its own approach to the Indo-Pacific, to act as a credible and responsible stakeholder in the region. France’s Indo-Pacific strategy therefore aims to maintain stability and shape the region in a positive way, while protecting and deterring against threats. This approach, focusing on maritime security and multilateralism, is to be implemented in coordination with regional partners.
France also took the lead on encouraging development of a European Union strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific. The EU’s assets and strategic weight allows France to increase its leverage while continuing to maintain its strategic autonomy as a core element of national identity. France as a responsible Indo-Pacific stakeholder. As an Indo-Pacific resident power, France first seeks to defend its sovereign interests in the region, “from Djibouti to Polynesia”14. Central to its regional engagement is monitoring and managing its vast EEZ in the face of increasing threats. In addition, French sovereignty over some of its overseas territories is under strain. New Caledonia is torn between pro-independence and conservative groups, and a referendum in December 2021 will decide the fate of the island. Already, reports about a growing Chinese influence in New Caledonia (which has important stocks of nickel) are worrying.
France’s Indo-Pacific strategy is clearly motivated by China’s rise. The French Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific, published in 2019, describes the expansion of China as a destabilising factor, shifting the balance of power, challenging democratic values, and triggering strong security concerns. In particular, the advance of China in the South China Sea and the opening of a large Chinese base in Djibouti in 2017 served as a wake-up call. France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, while not targeting any country, also aims to check Beijing’s inappropriate behaviour, as well as achieving a level-playing field with China by networking with regional partners.
As a permanent member of the United National Security Council, France has the legitimacy and duty to act as a responsible stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific and across the world. France thus upholds a principles-based approach to global affairs, standing for freedom of maritime and aerial transit, multilateralism, principles of transparency and respect of human rights, and a rules-based order. Freedom of navigation stands out as one of the key challenges and concerns for France: any disruption of vital maritime routes would be disastrous for the European economy. Accordingly, France supports the strict application of the Law of the Sea.
While not taking sides on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, France has consistently sent surveillance frigates through the South and East China Seas since 2014. In June 2019, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was sent to Singapore during the Shangri-La Dialogue. At the time, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly promised that French vessels would continue upholding international law in a “steady, non-confrontational but obstinate way”. In February 2021, Parly revealed that a French nuclear-powered submarine had just patrolled the South China Sea, demonstrating the capacity to deploy at page 10 long range and in coordination with strategic partners. The steady dispatch and patrol of French ships in the Indo-Pacific is necessary for gathering first-hand information, an indispensable foundation for an independent assessment of the geostrategic reality.
In the same vein, France aims to develop maritime surveillance capabilities in the region. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is a requirement for better managing one’s own EEZ and ensuring the openness of maritime routes. Achieving better MDA through capacity-building, networking of partners, and information sharing also helps maintain a favourable balance of power, by ensuring that littoral and island states are in a better position to monitor their territories. France also wants to contribute to the resilience of regional countries vulnerable to climate change or natural disasters. Cooperation in environmental security is indeed a distinct feature of the French Indo-Pacific strategy.
Balancing strategic autonomy and regional partnerships
While great power rivalry provides an important background to the French Indo-Pacific strategy, Paris’ approach is not to act as a new competitor, but rather to mitigate Sino-US tensions by fostering a multipolar and multilateral region governed by the rule of law. It emphasizes the independent and inclusive nature of its Indo-Pacific strategy for this reason. President Macron has asserted that France should be a ‘balancing power’ (puissance d’équilibre) by offering an alternative to bilateral confrontation, while also maintaining a robust dialogue and partnership with China. At the same time, France’s Indo-Pacific strategy has elements of a balancing approach vis à vis Beijing. Macron also mentioned the need for France to coordinate with like-minded partners in front of China, to avoid a hegemony that could be detrimental to French interests.
As its capacity to militarily mobilise in the region is limited, France relies on its defence and security ties with Indo-Pacific partners. France’s key partnerships with India, Australia, and Japan are founded upon common values and similar interests and reinforced by defence deals and concrete security cooperation. These defence pacts aim to share key information and reinforce interoperability and coordination at sea, including cross-deck operations, replenishment-at-sea, minesweeping, and anti-submarine warfare. These partnerships support French vessels to patrol and deploy in the vast Indo-Pacific and advance France’s efforts to monitor its territories.
France’s defence agreements with Indo-Pacific partners have been demonstratively put into practice in the region. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, in March 2020 an Indian Navy P-8 aircraft visited La Réunion to conduct a coordinated maritime patrol with French forces. France and India are also co-developing a constellation of satellites to monitor the Indian Ocean. France’s strategic partnership with Australia focuses on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and other maritime security issues, including monitoring of climate change and sustainable development issues. In April 2021, a joint Australia-France patrol sailed the South China Sea for the first time, upholding freedom of navigation operations. France has also gradually institutionalised bilateral security cooperation with Japan. A comprehensive maritime dialogue has been established, and an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement signed in 2019 facilitates more ambitious joint exercises. The amphibious exercises ARC21 that took place on the Southwestern islands of Japan between French, US, Japanese, and Australian defence forces in May 2021 demonstrated significant progress in political and technical interoperability among the four partners. Trilateral discussions are now developing out of these parallel partnerships. France is still reluctant to seek to formally join the Quad of the US, Japan, India, and Australia. Yet it held its La Pérouse joint naval exercises with the four Quad partners for the first time in April 2021, which demonstrated its capability as a convening power with credible naval capacities.
France has additionally prioritised the deepening of relations with Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries. It is aiming to “build up the strategic autonomy” of its Southeast Asian partners as an alternative to their respective partnerships with China and the US29. This includes through the provision of defence equipment and training, and developmental assistance on environmental issues and health.
More generally, reviving multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific is seen as key for ensuring regional stability, mitigating great power competition, and organising conditions of access and use of common spaces. France is already part of several major multilateral fora in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. New Delhi supported Paris’ access to the Indian Ocean Rim Association in December 2020. France is also now chairing the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, with the objective of revitalising it.
Building a European approach to the Indo-Pacific
The Indo-Pacific narrative has also gained momentum in wider Europe. Distrust of China has been growing and the Covid-19 crisis illustrated how events in Asia could directly impact European security. Germany, which was once very cautious to not antagonise China, published its own Indo-Pacific strategy in September 2020, followed by the Netherlands. Council conclusions on an EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific were adopted in April 2021, marking a turning point for the European position in the region.
France has played the key role in driving a European engagement with the Indo-Pacific. The whole-of-EU approach to the region complements France’s Indo-Pacific strategy and increases its strategic weight vis à vis China and the US. Furthermore, the EU has significant capacity to support sustainable development, infrastructure, and capacity building through its EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy. Coordinating with European partners is also a way to enhance the visibility and significance of French deployments and activities. In 2016, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves le Drian called for a greater European presence in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea. Subsequently, in 2017, British troops as well as twelve officers from European countries joined the French naval mission Jeanne d’Arc. The EU Coordinated Maritime Presence now provides a new flexibility for interested EU member states to establish a multinational naval presence for political signalling, naval diplomacy, and information gathering, as indicated by the EU Indo-Pacific strategy. The EU has also had extensive experience in combating piracy in the Horn of Africa and building Maritime Domain Awareness capabilities in the Western Indian Ocean over the past twelve years. It is expanding its cooperation to the Eastern Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia through the CRIMARIO II (2020-2023) and Enhancing Security In and With Asia projects. France’s Indo-Pacific strategy provides means of dealing with China’s expanding influence, the Sino-American strategic rivalry, and the general transformation of global order that would otherwise risk France being marginalised. By adopting the Indo-Pacific narrative, France has positioned itself not only as a key European power, but a resident power and responsible stakeholder in a key geopolitical arena. By promoting a principles-based approach, France has reemphasised the universality of its national identity, while simultaneously pursuing its concrete interests in terms of maintaining a balance of power, maritime security, governance of the commons, and multilateralism. A key feature of its strategic posture is maintaining strategic autonomy, which can be achieved through promotion of multilateralism, cooperation with partners, and coordination with the broader European approach.
However, several challenges must be overcome to ensure the success of France’s strategy. First, despite the political rhetoric that established the Indo-Pacific as a national priority, only limited capacities are available to mobilise in this region. The tyranny of distance makes any deployment of military assets a significant obstacle. To rapidly intervene in the area, France should consider establishing a new location for prepositioned forces. Second, France should ensure its overseas territories fully endorse its Indo-Pacific strategy and are prepared to play the necessary strategic role in enhancing French influence in the region. Third, France should better explain its strategic autonomy posture to its regional partners, some of whom might view it as a sign of a wavering commitment to the Indo-Pacific. Finally, Paris should ensure the EU’s Indo-Pacific vision is implemented swiftly and concretely. This will be a priority of the French Presidency of the European Union in 2022.
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