The Indo-Pacific region is inhabited by 1.5 million French population especially concentrated in the Indian Ocean territories of La Re̍union and Mayotte islands and the French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean. To safeguard these overseas territories, France, at all times, maintains 8,000 soldiers comprising the pre-positioned forces in the region. Importance of this region, for France, can also be gauged from the fact that the Indian and Pacific Oceans comprise 93% of the French exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Of late there is a growing perception in France that its interests in Indo Pacific are threatened by China’s rising power and its aggressively assertive behaviour skimping the rule based international order. This is the actual raison d’état for France’s active involvement in the resolution of regional crises, whether the developments in Afghanistan, North Korean nuclear brinkmanship or the safety of the main shipping lanes and the fight against maritime piracy, organized crime, terrorism, radicalization and climate change.
The French Polynesia presents a major strategic interest for China. The French Polynesia with 10 percent of its population being of Chinese origin and close cultural and ethnic affinity with China has its developmental and economic aspirations aligned with Chinese belt and road initiative. Policymakers in Paris have little connect with the ground realities in this faraway region and any opposition to China’s BRI by Parisian policymakers have drawn sharp criticism from these islanders. A strong pro-independence sentiment running in the French Polynesia should also raise the heckles in Paris as this can be exploited by China to meet its strategic aims.
With a view to safeguarding this interest, France needs to contribute to the strategic stability and balance of power in the region which is undergoing a rapid churn. In pursuance of this policy, France has been regularly reviewing its Indo Pacific policy and providing military assistance and cooperation including capacity building and transfer of advanced military hardware to nations of Indo Pacific. Cancelling of the France Australia diesel electric submarine deal at the behest of US put a spanner in the works and riled not only France but the EU for the lost economic opportunity which would have brought precious revenue to the Euro Zone. Relations with Australia- an important pillar for building a political bulwark against China, in the Indo Pacific, were affected by this gratuitous development and France has tried to compensate for the loss of this diplomatic influence by forging closer relations with India, Japan and Indonesia.
In matters of European Security, France works under the framework of NATO, but it believes that Indo Pacific is outside the ambit of NATO and thus as a leading European power with considerable interests in the Indo Pacific, France must lead the EU policy on Indo Pacific. However, owing to the lack of unanimity of opinion on this issue within the EU, France has decided to act on its own steam on issues of hard security and in concert with the EU on matters of soft security. With a view to overcoming the limitations of its finite resources, both economic and military in the Indo Pacific, France, during its 2021 EU presidency has tried to dovetail its own Indo Pacific strategy into the EU’s Indo Pacific strategy by reaching out to other EU members with considerable success. Aligned with this, France in Feb 2022, organised in Paris, the Indo Pacific Forum together with EU high representatives for foreign affairs and security policy and the foreign ministers of 30 Indo Pacific states including India, South Korea and Japan. US was notable by its absence from this forum to allow France and the EU to exercise their autonomy in conducting their diplomatic relations and to display their commitment to the Indo Pacific region.
France is a part of the top 10 global economies and is the global leader in the domains of automotives, railways, Nuclear technology and aerospace. France sees vast opportunities in influence building through economic cooperation in the field of military hardware exports and automotives through such initiatives. However, this approach of France is not beyond criticism from some of its EU partners. They have accussed France, under Emmanuel Macron, of Neo Gaullist and Mitterandist ambitions with respect to its foreign policy while others tend to disagree and believe the issues regarding European sovereignty, raised by Macron, are well founded and valid. However, EU states like the Baltics and the Polish are ambivalent about the notions of European Grandeur and believe that Macron may be dressing up France’s Gaullist agenda by propagating this approach. When it comes to dealing with China, France doesn’t deviate from the policy of EU China relations with respect to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, South China Sea and Taiwan Straits and thus has EU’s backing. Despite its vigorous efforts, France has not been successful in convincing EU member states to make available military resources for Indo Pacific region. This is partly, as earlier brought out, due to the divergence of views and also lack of military resources available for deployment in the Indo Pacific with EU members in view of growing security threats in continental Europe. The Russia Ukraine conflict has further accentuated the geographical focus dilemma that EU faces with respect to the deployment of its military resources. This creates dynamic interlinkage between the strategic stability in continental Europe and the Indo Pacific. While there is, after Brexit, a growing acceptance among EU members, of France as a major security player due to it being a permanent member of the UNSC and a nuclear power, the EU suffers lack of cohesion, willingness and adequacy of military resources to address the security challenges in Indo pacific. On this issue, in addition to the reasons already cited earlier, EU has, due to the many decadal dependence on NATO, a propensity to look over the shoulder for US imprimatur for any independent security policy in Indo Pacific. To demonstrate that it was willing to walk the talk, in 2019, France sent an aircraft carrier strike group, led by the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, on a mission to the Indo-Pacific, which included sailing through the contentious Taiwan Strait and holding joint naval drills with regional partners. In this context the annual maritime forces exercise La Perousé comprising India, Australia, Japan, UK and US with France is also noteworthy.
India is the net security provider in the Indian Pacific region which also happens to be the centre of geopolitical and geo-economics churn. It is, in addition to many others, that France’s closeness with India has grown in last five six years as evident by the number of high profile visits by leaders of both states starting from 2015. During the Mar 2018 visit of Emmanuel Macron to New Delhi a “Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region” was issued. The importance of Indo Pacific for France is borne by the fact that France is a member of both The Indian Ocean Commission and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and been holding Annual Bilateral Defence Dialogue at the Ministerial level with India since 2019. In Feb 2022, France published an update of its Indo Pacific Strategy. France’s outreach to India is testimony that India is not only a major strategic player in the Indo Pacific region but has both soft and hard resources to thwart attempts by China to aggressively hegemonize the region through developmental aid. To stymie such attempts a diplomatic tug of war between western powers and China is also on in small island nations of Western Pacific such a Togo, Fiji and Soloman Islands, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati.
To be able to possess adequate military resources to sustain its security policy in the Indo Pacific as well as in continental Europe, France has embarked on a Military Programming Law, under which France will devote €413 billion to its armed forces between 2024 and 2030. This is by any standard a substantial hike and will amount to the defence budget doubling over the 2017 figures. Additionally, due to the Russia Ukraine conflict, there is a visibly clear urgency on part of many NATO members to measure up to their 2014 NATO funding pledge of 2 percent of GDP. While the full impact of these policy decisions will only be seen after some time, for the present, France is assisting and supporting the EU members as well as its partners in Indo Pacific and collaborating, coordinating and optimising the deployment of resources in this vast region to maintain balance of power essential for security and stability. As part of this initiative France has entered into Logistics Support Agreements with various partner nations. The outreach to India, Indonesia and Japan in the field of maritime cooperation also seems to be part of this strategy. To further strengthen this strategy France needs to engage with various littoral and island nations in the Indo Pacific through various bilateral, minilateral and multilateral fora. Another effective measure would be strengthening closer engagement with existing formats such as the Quad.
It is evident from this complex interplay of politics and diplomacy between France, US and China that France wishes to maintain neutrality from both and at the same time maintains a latent desire to emerge as the third pole of the bipolar global order. While the Chinese threat to international rule-based order, freedom of navigation, authoritarianism and debt trap diplomacy looms large, in the Indo Pacific region including the French interests, any effort to tackle China by France alone would amount to punching beyond its weight. Many analysts may be surprised at the recent statement of President Macron of France not wanting to be a US vassal on the China Taiwan issue. This statement needs to be seen in the context of historically complex love hate US France relationship and France’s latent desire to emerge as the dominant European power independent of the US. Such radical statement could also be a deft political move to set diversionary agenda for newsrooms in France reeling from political unrest over domestic issues. It would be preferable for France to engage and contest China, using the economic, political and diplomatic heft of the EU format and through a combination of multilateral and minilateral fora comprising not only the major powers in the region like India but the smaller littoral and island nations as well.
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