Publié le 04/08/2023

Céline PAJON, op-ed published in Nikkei Asia

President offers 'alternative' for states squeezed between U.S. and China

Two years after France's surprise ejection from Australia's naval submarine acquisition plan, France is emerging with a new Indo-Pacific approach.

Paris is responding to criticism about its vague strategy by tempering its rhetoric, clarifying priorities, decentering its approach and moving to deliver tangible results.

President Emmanuel Macron's Pacific tour last week marked a positive first step toward reestablishing France's shaken legitimacy in the region in the face of challenges from independence movements in its overseas territories, incautious comments distancing Europe from a potential Taiwan crisis and U.S.-led initiatives, including the AUKUS nuclear submarine arrangement with Australia and the U.K.

In a diplomatic display of strength, Macron traveled with five ministers from his newly reshuffled cabinet and announced the opening of a new embassy in Samoa, demonstrating France's commitment to catch up with regional powers that have been increasing their influence in Pacific over the past few years.

Macron repeatedly affirmed that his administration has the will to take responsibility for France's historical legacy in the Indo-Pacific region. In New Caledonia and Vanuatu, Macron recognized the brutality of France's imperial era, referring to a "history of appropriation of wealth and exploitation of populations" and "a past of suffering and alienation." In Noumea, he called for building a path of forgiveness by setting up a truth and reconciliation committee to build up a unified memory.

He also addressed the institutional quagmire around New Caledonia's future, acknowledging there are still dissident voices in the French territory after three referendum votes against independence. He called for pursuit of a consensus among loyalists, independence activists and Paris through discussions of a new constitutional status for the island group. Macron also signaled consideration of local concerns by addressing coastal erosion and the future of the nickel industry, the islands' key export sector.

Throughout the trip, Macron reaffirmed Paris' distinctive approach and aspiration to forge its own path beyond Chinese and American strategies in the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, he abandoned ambiguous references to France's "strategic autonomy" and ambition to be a "balancing power."

Instead of advocating a "third way," Macron is now offering an "alternative" for regional countries. Rather than seeking to balance the U.S. and China, the president is promoting "the sovereignty and independence" of states in the region amid geopolitical competition and transnational threats, such as climate change and maritime crime.

This change in rhetoric tempers an arrogant dimension of France's regional ambition and aligns more realistically with what Paris can feasibly offer, given its limited capacities. As a result, this adjustment should add credibility to its position.

Macron acknowledged criticism regarding disparities between French ambitions and capacity, as well as a past lack of clear priorities. His pragmatic response is to tether the country's updated Indo-Pacific strategy on the pillars of security cooperation and climate change, areas in which France can stake a legitimate claim to influence due to its experience and expertise.

The presence of Rafale fighter jets from the French Air and Space Force escorting Macron's presidential jet to Noumea, following a joint training exercise with the U.S. Air Force in Guam and Palau, demonstrated Paris' capacity to rapidly deploy high-end military assets to the region. However, it is widely acknowledged that French forces stationed in the Pacific lack sufficient capability for higher-spectrum missions, despite their ongoing modernization.

Capitalizing instead on the French armed forces' well-recognized regional proficiency in maritime surveillance and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, Macron announced the establishment of a military academy in Noumea to train Pacific officers as well as enhanced relief coordination in cooperation with the Red Cross. With a boost from 200 more troops and 150 million euros ($164.7 million) in new investment, the French military base in Noumea will put a focus on enhancing regional capacity building.

With Vanuatu, Macron issued a joint call for climate action, drawing upon the 2015 Paris Agreement and June's Paris Agenda for People and the Planet, positioning France as a supporter of Port Vila and other Pacific island states in their pursuit of climate justice.

Additionally, the French Development Agency said it would commit 200 million euros to the Pacific by 2027, funding that would mark a quintupling of previous plans. Building on the success of the Kiwa Initiative, launched by France and the EU in 2017 to build climate change resilience in the Pacific, the new regional aid will promote climate change adaptation by bridging local traditional knowledge and global science. Macron also promised that Paris would develop a country package for forests, nature and climate with Papua New Guinea under the rubric of the EU's Global Gateway initiative.

Macron showcased France's Pacific territories as a strategic advantage while vigorously promoting regional cooperation. In a groundbreaking move, the French head of state traveled to Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea alongside pro-independence leaders from New Caledonia and French Polynesia, including them in high-level bilateral discussions. He also publicly endorsed collaboration between New Caledonia and the two independent nations.

In a bid to recalibrate his Indo-Pacific approach, Macron chose not to visit any major Pacific partner like Australia, instead prioritizing smaller Indo-Pacific actors that seek to avoid alignment with the U.S. or China and which can be expected to be more receptive to France's alternative approach.

France's delicate Indo-Pacific balancing act persists.

While Macron recently opposed the establishment of a NATO liaison office in Tokyo to avoid provoking Beijing, he referred during his visit to Vanuatu to "new imperialism" and "predatory powers," apparent allusions to China and Russia. Only a few days later, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire was in Beijing seeking greater French access to the Chinese market.

Ultimately, though, Macron's trip was about strengthening France's position in the Indo-Pacific and clarifying its role. This will potentially facilitate ad hoc association with U.S.-led initiatives like the Quad and the Partners in the Blue Pacific, but as the president made clear, Paris has its own agenda for the region.

Read the op-ed on Nikkei Asia [1]'s website.