France has a special role in European debates about the Indo-Pacific because it has territories there. Why has Paris’ interest in the region grown steadily?
The focus has been on French overseas territories and its Exclusive Economic Zones – in which all countries enjoy sovereign rights to explore and use marine resources – in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. This huge maritime space is not without disputes (such as with Madagascar and Vanuatu) and threats to French economic interests. France’s Asia policy used to be very Sino-centric and adopting an Indo-Pacific strategy was new a departure. Paris has focused on a number of key strategic partners, especially India, Australia and Japan. This is where it differs from Germany, which prefers to stress “ASEAN centrality.” What was a defense-approach to security and sovereign interest has broadened as other countries, especially the US, started to push their own Indo-Pacific strategies. Today, France has multilateralism, climate change, ocean governance on its agenda and casts itself as a “third way” between the US and China to in the region.
How did France’s approach influence the EU’s recent Indo-Pacific strategy?
France, the Netherlands and Germany, the countries with the biggest interest in the region, were able to work together and push for the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. It was not a given that all EU member states would be on board and there was a lot of resistance on the way, including from the Commission. So, the document that we have is the lowest common denominator and I think it reflects more the German positioning than the initial French one on maritime security and the defense of a maritime order based on international law. In fact, the common denominator approach hides the fact that there are big differences among member states about the importance of the Indo-Pacific.
How has Paris digested Australia’s cancellation of a EUR 55 billion French submarine sale and its key role the AUKUS security deal with the US and the UK?
This is a blow to France’s Indo-Pacific strategy because the submarine contract was important not only for the French defense industry, but also gave a structure to French security policy engagement in the region. The deal had been described as a 50-year marriage between France and Australia in terms of their defense industries and military cooperation. So one pillar of the French engagement in the Indo-Pacific was suddenly wiped out by the AUKUS agreement. I have no doubt that France’s interest in the region and its ambition to increase the French presence there will stay. But I think the traditional focus on key partners will have to be adjusted, that is the crucial point.
Are you implying that this has led to the rise of anti-US sentiment in France?
There are voices in France calling for Paris to again to withdraw from NATO’s command structures. There are voices arguing that the French focus should be narrower and less ambitious in the Indo-Pacific and more narrowly honed on its sovereignty interests in the region. I do not think they will win the argument as it is now in the DNA of French foreign policy to diversify partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. This means AUKUS will increase the importance of India, Japan and perhaps also Indonesia to French foreign policy. When it comes to Franco-US relations, despite everything Paris has demanded from the US, I think France still has to persuade Washington that its autonomous action in the Indo-Pacific brings added value to the US strategy. If the AUKUS crisis leads to anything positive, maybe it is that the two sides address this issue – with some urgency.
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