UK and France should collaborate on Indo-Pacific security

Europe plays an increasing but uncoordinated role in Asian security. By taking the lead, France and the UK can help other Europeans to make a contribution.

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Alice Billon-Galland

Former Research Fellow, Europe Programme

All European countries – many of them NATO allies – see European and Euro-Atlantic security as the top strategic priority, though the ‘threat perception’ of central and eastern Europe tends to focus on Russia, and southern Europe on the Mediterranean and southern neighbourhood.

But Europe’s attention is now also increasingly turning to Asian security as developments in that region – above all, the rise of China – begin to heavily impact European interests. Even NATO is assessing links between Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security. But the resources Europeans can devote to Asian security are limited. If they are to play an increasing role in Asian security – given the wide range of challenges in that region – it is time to think in a more structured way about how it can be done.

Develop a France-UK core

As nuclear powers and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, France and the UK see themselves as global security providers. During last five years or so, they have both deepened security cooperation with key regional partners

European involvement in Indo-Pacific security must start with France and the UK. Both have strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific which go beyond that of other European countries – or the European Union (EU) itself – and mostly overlap.

The UK is already involved in Asian security through the Five Eyes – which may be developing beyond its intelligence sharing origins – and the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, also including Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore. With more than 1.5 million citizens, extensive territory, and five permanent military bases, France has even more direct interest in the Indo-Pacific.

As nuclear powers and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, France and the UK see themselves as global security providers. During last five years or so, they have both deepened security cooperation with key regional partners.

In particular, both have increased bilateral cooperation with Japan through 2+2 meetings of foreign and defence ministers, Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements, and military exercises. They have also both carried out regular presence operations in the South China Sea, and the HMS Queen Elizabeth and Charles de Gaulle aircraft carriers will each deploy to the region – Pacific Ocean for the former, Indian Ocean for the latter – in 2021.

The recent publication of the UK’s Integrated Review sparked much discussion about a supposed Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ and even – misleadingly – about the UK’s return to ‘east of Suez’. French officials simply say they never left the region.

During the past decade, France and the UK have also increased their own bilateral defence cooperation, especially through the Lancaster House agreements signed by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. But while collaboration on a wide range of topics from nuclear cooperation to the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) has deepened, their Indo-Pacific strategies have developed largely independently of each other. To some extent, they have even been in competition with each other, especially over defence industry contracts.

France and the UK each have strong existing bilateral ties with countries in the region based on interests and histories, but there is no in-depth joint assessment of their respective understandings, interests, and competition there. Given both limited resources and shared objectives in the Indo-Pacific, it makes sense for France and the UK to coordinate more effectively and cooperate when relevant.

Towards a joint European approach

Other European countries may also be increasingly willing to contribute to Asian security. Faced with growing instability in the region and the assertiveness of the Chinese regime on a wide range of topics such as the Xinjiang region, Hong Kong, and the pandemic, many have become more assertive on China – though this assertiveness focuses largely on economic issues such as investment.

Germany and the Netherlands both published ‘guidelines’ on the Indo-Pacific in 2020 which read as European rather than purely national approaches, and Germany also announced it will deploy a frigate to the Indo-Pacific later in 2021.

Developing a shared and united European vision for the Indo-Pacific will take time but, as France and the UK’s regional partners regularly remind them, the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific is degrading fast

As the EU is also developing its own Indo-Pacific strategy, there is clearly something to be said for an inclusive approach that would allow Europeans to use their resources in an integrated way. Given the wide range of policy areas such as security, tech, economics and trade, infrastructure, and climate, and with the UK now outside of the EU, it is likely such discussions will happen in different venues – bilateral, EU, NATO, E3 – and aim to be at best complementary and at a minimum not mutually exclusive.

The question is how – and how quickly – to do all this. Developing a shared and united European vision for the Indo-Pacific will take time but, as France and the UK’s regional partners regularly remind them, the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific is degrading fast. Thus there is an argument for France and the UK to press ahead and lead the way, especially on security commitments.

This leadership would help other European countries by creating what one British official calls a ‘safe framework’, encouraging others to for example deploy resources as part of British-led or French-led deployments, as will happen with the UK-led CSG 21 carrier group. There is scope to coordinate surges and the messaging around them, or do them together – it is pure luck the British and French aircraft carriers will both be deploying later in 2021, almost as if they were coordinated.

France and the UK should also go further in coordinating deployments of naval and air assets. They could agree to deploy one carrier battle group either in the Western Indian Ocean, the Gulf, or further east for an agreed minimum number of days per year, which would ensure a more ‘persistent’ European military presence in the Indo-Pacific. This would also make it easier for other Europeans to plan how best to contribute.

There is also scope for increased intelligence sharing and a possible division of labour whereby France would bring expertise in the south-west Pacific and the UK in south-east Asia. Together with other Europeans – particularly Germany – France and the UK can work together in making contributions to Asian security in other ways such as capacity-building in cyber and ‘lawfare’ or around issues of climate security. They should also coordinate in planning for potential scenarios, such as a Taiwan crisis.

As well as coordinating more among themselves, Europeans also need to deepen cooperation with regional partners particularly via the Quad framework of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, which is itself becoming a tighter group – the heads of government of the four countries met for the first time earlier this month. This could ultimately lead to discussions in a Quad + E2 format or, if Germany were prepared to go further in increasing its contribution to Asian security, a Quad + E3.

Of course, there is value in trying to build a fully inclusive, joint European approach to Indo-Pacific security. But the fast-moving situation in Asia means that France and the UK taking a lead may the best way for Europe to make a genuine contribution to Asian security right now.