France considers itself a ‘resident’ in the Indo-Pacific and works to attain the status of a local actor to unobtrusively advance its interests and shape norms.
France’s Indo-Pacific policy development
Under President Macron, there has been a marked increase in intensity in France’s strategic Indo-Pacific focus, with a clear emphasis on ‘French interests’. Apart from regional high-level visits, in 2019 the French Ministry for the Armed Forces published France’s Defence Strategy in the Indo-Pacific and the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs published The French Strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Officially the French approach is coordinated with the EU, but there is not an EU Indo-Pacific policy, due in part to the EU’s complex relationship with China. However, in September 2020, Germany released ‘policy guidelines’ on the Indo-Pacific that state, ‘the German Government is aiming not least to promote a European Indo-Pacific strategy’. In November 2020, another former Indo-Pacific colonial power, the Netherlands, announced its own Indo-Pacific policy, based on a ‘unique Dutch vision’ for the region. Germany and the Netherlands’ gambit to shape the EU’s strategy will likely have little effect on France’s Indo-Pacific engagement, which is based on shared geography and long-standing, carefully cultivated, bilateral relationships.
Roundtable and interview summary
French engagement and ‘non-aligned alliances’
During the interviews and roundtable, there was consistent emphasis on France’s diversified and deep economic engagement in the region. In terms of sales in the government’s priority areas of defence, energy and infrastructure, it was said that one of France’s goals was to attain the status of a local actor, allowing it to contribute to shaping norms. One participant said that France tried to distinguish itself by saying ‘any type of agreement with France has a lower political and military conditionality than that of the United States. It’s the French added value.’ Another participant described France’s position as ‘non-aligned alliances’. That said, it was also stated that one of the reasons for France’s increased role in the Indo-Pacific was China. One participant said, ‘everyone is happy with the presence of France, because of China and the lack of allied presence with capacity.’
France and ASEAN
France works both bilaterally and with regional organizations. Specifically, according to participants, France puts emphasis on working with ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific but, due to internal ASEAN dynamics, the perception was that ASEAN ‘makes a lot of noise’ but was inefficient, slowed down action and complicated issues – what one participant described as the ‘ASEAN fog’.
France and India
The relationship with India was said to be particularly important for France, especially in diplomacy, business and defence. It is built on a long-standing foundation. France and India have worked together since the 1950s, with space cooperation starting in the 1960s. Under Macron, closer ties became a core part of French strategic policy. For participants, India was a large market for defence, energy and infrastructure and was considered key for geopolitical balance.
Participants stressed France’s maritime role in the region, highlighting that France was appreciated by India as it had good maritime domain awareness and brought an operational approach. Strategically, France was said to consider the Indian Navy a net security provider in the region; the primary France–India zone of engagement was the Indian Ocean, in particular the northwest and southwest sectors, where France has territories and where India has weaker links. Both countries wanted to build the partnership. In that context, France and India were said to be deepening their relationship by collaborating on a constellation of satellites for maritime traffic surveillance (India’s largest partnership of this kind), as well as a mechanism for increased information exchange and logistics.
The perception was that when it comes to defence, India was agnostic and buys from everywhere; the west coast of India had French submarines and the east coast had Russian nuclear submarines. France itself had sold submarines to both India and Pakistan. As a result, it was said that French industry knew that ‘deal-breaker’ conditions were impossible – France did not have the ‘political force’ to impose any and taking a strong stance would be detrimental to the French defence sector.
French industry knew that ‘deal-breaker’ conditions were impossible – France did not have the ‘political force’ to impose any and taking a strong stance would be detrimental to the French defence sector.
Working with India was considered ‘complicated’ and required finesse. Among the complicating factors mentioned were the interplay between India’s private and public sectors, the importance of the ‘tycoon of the moment’ and their relationship with the political elite (often individual business leaders wield substantial influence at state and central government levels in India), the range of partnerships with foreign powers, and the complexity of Indian government bureaucracy. France has tried to position itself as offering predictable, reliable, trusted, long-term partnerships that stayed out of the media and delivered.
France and Japan
Another priority Indo-Pacific partner for France was Japan. Reasons given were that it was an originator of the FOIP, a major regional economic power and a supporter of liberal and multilateral orders. The perception was that, strategically, the ‘Japanese project’ was anti-China and strongly dependent on the US. Participants said that within Japan there seemed to be concern about continued US commitment, which contributed to a desire to increase capacities and diversify its security partners to include others such as India and Australia, and ideally France. This was said to suit the US as it wanted Japan to take up more responsibilities within the alliance.
One Japanese goal was perceived to be to prevent China from taking strategic control of maritime routes and zones, including the South China Sea and Oceania. In this context, participants thought a growing Franco-Japanese strategic partnership would prioritize maritime domains. Already there was collaboration in Djibouti and interest in working together in Southeast Asia. However, in terms of France’s defence partnerships with Japan, agreements around platforms, weapons or simply equipment had been slow, cautious and difficult. One solution mentioned was to offer to sell dual-use equipment – for potentially both civil and military applications – which would reassure Tokyo strategically, and as a partner.
France and Oceania
France has large territories in Oceania, including French Polynesia and New Caledonia, and Paris is trying to gain trust and work more with its Oceania neighbours and regional organizations, especially in areas such as climate change, environmental sustainability, monitoring of illegal fishing, drugs trafficking and more. However, French Oceania has its own challenges. According to participants, there was an awareness of growing Chinese investment in French Polynesia, which is pitting economic considerations against security concerns, as well as the perception that China was encouraging independence movements in French territories. Paris has markedly increased its focus on the region, but participants said there were still gaps.
French concerns in the Indo-Pacific
Although comparatively advanced, France’s Indo-Pacific policy was perceived to be still in formation, and to lack enough administrative, financial and human resources to fully translate demands into operations. As one participant said, ‘it is not because there is a strategy on the Indo-Pacific that France is present everywhere.’ One approach was to create a division of labour with partners, for instance through ad hoc cooperation on geographic issues or certain subjects such as overfishing. In Oceania, for example, France could work with Australia in one location, and Japan in another.
A major concern was that the US–China dynamic would become increasingly polarized, leaving less room for manoeuvre or hedging for France. An energy sector participant said that from their perspective, they were not operating in a polarized context, and they didn’t want to have to make a choice. They currently worked with a range of countries but, if polarization intensified, their freedom of operation would become constricted and it would be more difficult for countries like Myanmar to ‘escape’ China’s influence, which would affect French business interests.
Another potential impediment for France was the regional counter-narrative that any European engagement was neocolonial. While less apparent at governance levels, this narrative was present in the media, and was a leverage point for China to use against France. To get around those concerns, participants repeatedly brought up France’s priority of nurturing deeper multifaceted partnerships, in particular with India and Japan.
In addition, the participants perceived the risk of US-linked strategic surprises to be very high, and the future as uncertain and worrying. Militarily, China was perceived to be closing the gap on the US in the Indo-Pacific. That led many participants to repeat that strong ties with Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia and others were ever more important.
Ultimately, the perception was that the ability of the various countries to coordinate, if not cooperate, would determine geopolitical balance and, in the meantime, the French bottom line was not to se faire bouffer (to be eaten bit by bit) in the Indo-Pacific.
In terms of strategic policy, France is one of the least divided and most certain countries when it comes to its direction, in part because its economic, political and defence outlooks are closely aligned. Rather than hedging, it is trying to shape its own Indo-Pacific reality, unabashedly built around pragmatic French interests. For example, in September 2020, France tested the waters for Macron’s 2018 vision of a ‘Paris–Delhi–Canberra Axis’ by inaugurating a France, India and Australia Indo-Pacific trilateral. That is one way of handling not being included in the Quad.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, France may find its room for manoeuvre more limited as other countries pick sides between Beijing- and Washington-centred groupings. However, far from withdrawing from the region, it is actively trying to build partnerships there. France may not be able to engage as widely, but it is likely to engage more deeply, especially as it stands to benefit as the partners it does have in the Indo-Pacific, for instance India, build up their military power.