France as an Indo-Pacific Power and What it Means for China

FS Charles de Gaulle operates with USS John C. Stennis © Official US Navy Page / CC-BY 2.0 / Flickr

The emerging concept of the Indo-Pacific is one which is becoming increasingly important in foreign policy spheres, and one which is likely to enter the vocabulary of many a casual observer in the near-future. The idea of the Indo-Pacific emerged in recent years and has been articulated in foreign policy publications, and more importantly, in the foreign policy doctrine of multiple countries. The Indo-Pacific is commonly considered to be the region of sea and land stretching from the eastern coast of Africa, across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, as far as the western coast of the Americas, although precise understandings do differ (Haruko, 2020). This vast area counts millions of inhabitants along its coastal regions, from India to Indonesia, and across the island nations and territories of both oceans. In many respects, this is shaping up to be the region of the greatest importance over the next number of years. Many of the world’s most important trade routes cross the Indo-Pacific, from the Gulf of Aden in the west to the Malacca Strait in the centre, and even the Panama Canal in the east. Naval competition across the region is growing in importance, and many of the world’s dominant and rising economic powers lie there, including the US, Australia, China, India and Indonesia.

While the age of empires has long-passed, France’s colonial holdovers are becoming an important part of the geopolitical architecture of the Indo-Pacific. While one normally conceptualises France as a state buried in the heart of Europe, its territory and possessions span the globe. Réunion Island is one of the biggest, and it lies off the east coast of Africa, in the Indian Ocean. Island and archipelagos like New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Martinique, and the French Southern and Antarctic Lands help to make up a French population of 1.6 million across the Indo-Pacific (Bagshaw, 2020). Many of these regions are fully integrated into France too. Réunion is a department, and as such, is part of the European Union. As a result, it was one of the first places which saw Euro exchanges take place (The Irish Times, 2001). These islands also help to give France an economic stake in the region. France has the second largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world, giving it rights over trade and fishing far from its traditional borders.

It was against this backdrop that, in 2018, the French Government released a briefing document, outlining their interests across the region (Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy, 2019). May of that year also saw French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron allude to the issue (Doherty, 2018). The briefing document touches on a number of important notes. It highlights current French activities in the region, such as their military presence, as well as their commitment to anti-piracy and and stopping the illicit trafficking of drugs and fishing within their EEZ. Within the document, the French claim an almost uninterrupted area of responsibility from the shores of east Africa, to more than halfway across the Pacific.

Moreover, France has been heavily focused on the Indo-Pacific on the diplomatic front too. In December 2020, France quietly joined the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), after 20 years as a dialogue partner (Mitra, 2020). IORA is an inter-governmental organisation who meet at different levels governmental levels, multiple times a year, to coordinate - voluntarily - on areas like maritime security, trade, fisheries and disaster management, among other areas. Macron has also spent some time on a charm offensive. He went on a four day trip visiting France’s overseas territories in 2019 (The Associated Press, 2019). He has also visited other major powers across the region, like India and Australia, meeting Prime Ministers Modi (France24, 2019) and Turnbull respectively (AAP, 2018).

Beyond the briefing document and Macron’s statements, the French have over 4000 troops stationed across the region, as well as dozens over two dozen ships, planes and helicopters. 2021 will also see further French deployment in the region. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle left France for a four month deployment in February which will take it into the Indian Ocean (Vavasseur, 2021). The Charles de Gaulle will also be helping to cement France’s defence cooperation with India when it engages in advanced exercises with the Indian Navy (Gupta, 2021). A French nuclear submarine has just finished a passage of the South China Sea, sailing 15,000km in a “proof of capability” voyage (Moriyasu, 2021). Furthermore, France will be engaging in joint military drills on land and sea in May with Japan and the US (Reuters Staff, 2020).

Hinted at so far is the presence and actions of other powers across the region. Japan, Australia, the US, and India are all established there, with their navies and militaries positioned throughout the region. France is not the only country using its islands as forward operating positions either. India is using the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with plans for a new deep water port and more bases, as a balance against Chinese control of the region, as the islands overlook important sealanes (ET Online, 2020). The US has territories like Guam and Hawaii dotted across the Pacific to project its influence and house its installations, as well as bases as far west as Djibouti (Ragas, 2021). China, for its part, is one of the largest players in the region. China also has a military base in Djibouti, as well as a naval presence across the Indian Ocean, with extensive submarine capabilities (Grare, 2020). China’s extensive Belt and Road Initiative also gives it sway across the region, as it is economically embedded in countries across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific (Chatzky and McBridge, 2020). China owns dozens of ports across the world too, many along major shipping routes in the Indo-Pacific (Kynge et al, 2017). China has shown no signs of easing up on their soft power projection either, announcing an intensifying of multilateral economic and trade cooperation in 2021 (Devonshire-Ellis, 2020).

It is China’s power plays which have brought a renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific to the fore for France (Ng, 2019). France is concerned about China’s assertive stance on contested waters and sealanes, and their flagrant disregard for international law and norms (Zhang, 2021). However, this is not France’s first expedition into the Indo-Pacific, nor is it the French’s first attempt at power projection across the region. France spent the late 1980s and 1990s on a diplomatic offensive, consolidating power across its disparate collectivities and territories, some of which had been seeking independence (Fisher, 2013; pp. 94). They did this while balancing intensive nuclear testing across the region, to assert themselves as a world power (Wright et al, 2019).

This latest look at the Indo-Pacific, and the articulation of a comprehensive strategy for the region, brings a level of concreteness to France’s plans. France is seeking to position itself as a hedge against the Sino-US rivalry, while upholding the rules-based international order, to which it sees China as a threat. They have called for building partnerships between allies and restoring a “level playing field” (Grare, 2020). France cannot actively challenge either of the two large powers in the region, but their preoccupation with one another could allow France to quietly disrupt the dynamics of the region. France’s potential positioning as a third party would give countries a pressure release when dealing with China or the US, as siding with France would not necessarily mean angering either the US or China. With implicit support for the US and their ideals, France could become the driver towards a multipolar region, with India, Australia and Japan particularly, likely to be happy to find their own space within that. France will be aiming to walk a fine line here however, themselves seeking not to upset China too much.

The other noteworthy dynamic at play, which is particularly pertinent with regards to the idea of cooperation across the region, is the newfound - or rekindled - interest of other European nations in the region (Ang, 2021). The United Kingdom has territory in the region too, in the form of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The UK has redesigned its head of Asia-Pacific policy at the Foreign Office as the director-general for the Indo-Pacific. The UK is planning to send its biggest ever flotilla to the region in 2021 (Heritage and Lee, 2021). Germany and the Netherlands have announced Indo-Pacific strategies too (Louis, 2020). A German frigate is set to patrol the Indian Ocean this year; a trip which will include a crossing of the South China Sea (Reuters Staff, 2021).

There are many areas of potential cooperation that France could engage in with its European partners, as well as with countries of the Indo-Pacific. In their own briefing document, the French highlight the areas of piracy, the protection of trade routes, and environmental concerns relating to overfishing and the protection of island communities from effects of climate change. European partners could fall in behind France and, like India, Australia and Japan, look to create a multipolar environment. This is not a guarantee however, and divergences between French and German visions could become a contentious issue (Duchâtel and Mohan, 2020). A multipolar Indo-Pacific, with multilateral cooperation as its cornerstone, would suit France the most, and their diplomatic and military exploits are unlikely to let up, particularly as the specter of COVID-19 fades.

The last question over France’s Indo-Pacific strategy is whether it is feasible and sustainable. France has a smaller navy than many countries across the region, like Indonesia, India, China, and the US (Woody, 2018). Weak economic growth could further compound France’s ability to sustain their military exploits (Ng, 2019). This is a fact compounded by the COVID-19 crisis, which has led to France’s worst recession since World War II (Desai, 2021). However, it is this dearth of resources that could allow France to garner influence in the region, as countries will not see France as a threat in the same vein that they do the US or China.

2021 will see France, as well as other European powers, literally and metaphorically test the waters of the Indo-Pacific. With both hard and soft power approaches, France will attempt to balance itself between the US and China, in favour of a rules-based international order, and ultimately in favour of multilateralism. France, of course, faces its own internal hurdles to the sustainability of its actions. Whether other countries will be amenable to such a broad policy, and whether France can craft the necessary coalition to disrupt the architecture of the Indo-Pacific, remains to be seen.

Leon Langdon completed his undergraduate in Law with Politics at University College Dublin in 2020. He is a George Moore Scholar, and an incoming graduate student at New York University, where he will be studying International Relations, with the aim to concentrate in Asian Politics. His work has appeared in The Diplomat and the Oxford Political Review. He can also be found on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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