The UK must cooperate with France in the Indo-Pacific

Despite understandable French anger over AUKUS, the UK and France share similar interests and partners in the Indo-Pacific and must navigate current tensions.

Expert comment Published 23 September 2021 Updated 15 December 2022 2 minute READ

Alice Billon-Galland

Former Research Fellow, Europe Programme

The announcement of the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the UK and the US, which put an end to the Franco-Australian submarine contract that constituted one of the pillars of the French Indo-Pacific strategy, has created a legitimate anger in France and clearly dealt a serious blow to trust and cooperation between France and the UK in a relationship already strained by years of post-Brexit disputes. Some senior figures have called for a rethink of France’s approach to the region, and even to alliances more generally.

Even though Paris has downplayed the role played by the UK in the new pact, which it sees mostly as exploiting the situation to score a post-Brexit political win, it has postponed the scheduled meeting between the French and British defence ministers – a sign that the wider relationship between France and the UK cannot be insulated from AUKUS. Yet the reality is the two countries share a similar set of interests and partners in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, and will need to find ways to navigate current tensions.

Clear rationale for cooperation

As nuclear powers and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, France and the UK see themselves as global security providers which means – despite competition for defence industry contracts, which is nothing new – there is a clear rationale for them to work together in the Indo-Pacific region and create a ‘safe framework’ to enable other Europeans to contribute to security in Asia.

The reality is the two countries share a similar set of interests and partners in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, and will need to find ways to navigate current tensions

If Paris wants to remain a key player in the region – and as an ‘Indo-Pacific nation’ with more than 1.5 million citizens in the region it really has no alternative – it cannot deepen relations with its own key regional partners such as India and Japan as some kind of alternative to the US-led coalition in the Indo-Pacific, because these countries are increasing their own security links with Australia and the US anyway, particularly through the Quad.

Operating in the Indo-Pacific through the European Union (EU) – as suggested by those invoking the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’ since the AUKUS announcement – is also not a realistic option. The real fault line between Europeans regarding Indo-Pacific security is not between a UK as part of an ‘Anglosphere’ on the one hand and continental Europe – or the EU – on the other. Rather, it is France and the UK on the one hand and the rest of Europe, including Germany, on the other.

Although EU officials such as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative Josep Borrell have expressed support to France over AUKUS, EU member states have been rather silent.

Most have neither the interest nor the means to get involved meaningfully in Indo-Pacific security. Some, such as Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen, are reluctant to be dragged into a transatlantic battle over an issue they see as relating more to French industrial interests than European strategic imperatives.

The EU Indo-Pacific strategy – announced on the same day as AUKUS and thus overshadowed by it – does not envision an important defence role for the EU in the region.

Avoiding new cracks

Despite the damage AUKUS has done to trust between France and the UK, it still makes sense for them to work together in the Indo-Pacific. In the short-term, the two countries should take steps to avoid this crisis spinning out of control – in particular, there is a risk AUKUS could open new cracks within NATO just as the alliance is working on its new Strategic Concept.

Although the new pact constitutes an undeniable success for the ‘Global Britain’ agenda, London should refrain from triumphalism that could worsen bilateral relations

Although the new pact constitutes an undeniable success for the ‘Global Britain’ agenda, London should refrain from triumphalism that could worsen bilateral relations – Boris Johnson’s recent intervention was particularly unhelpful – and instead take constructive steps to engage with Paris in order to smooth the tensions. Having such a serious and eager partner in the Indo-Pacific as France is still in the UK’s interest.

Conversely, Paris should keep in mind the bigger picture and show strategic patience (it is good that the ambassador in London was not recalled – whatever the reason). It should continue working with the UK and the Five Eyes countries on Indo-Pacific issues and ensure the feud does not escalate to other aspects of the bilateral relationship.

As well as holding the Franco-British defence ministers’ summit as soon as possible, working-level discussions and coordination on Indo-Pacific strategic issues should be stepped up – in particular over what role France can play in the newly-established framework, what impact it might have on nuclear proliferation, and how to manage defence-industrial competition so it does not undermine future strategic cooperation. This would also help keep the bilateral relationship afloat until political tensions ease.

Neither France or the UK has a choice between working with a US-led coalition or with other Europeans in the Indo-Pacific. In response to the China challenge, a network of deepening and overlapping security relationships is emerging which includes both regional partners and the US – with which both France and the UK must realistically engage with it if they want to play a role in the Indo-Pacific.

By cooperating with each other as the two leading European powers in the region, they can also provide a way for other Europeans to contribute to Asian security – despite the legitimate anger that AUKUS has created in France.