KIMS Periscope No. 319
THE FRENCH INDOPACIFIC STRATEGY, AN UNDERRATED APPROACH TO THE REGION’S CURRENT AND FUTURE CHALLENGES?
PhD Candidate, Paris Catholic University
France, an irrelevant power in the Indo-Pacific
Following the latest criticisms on France after the President’s remarks about Taiwan, it would be tempting to think that France has given up its influence and its interest in being a global geopolitical player, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Some do not hesitate – out of ignorance or self-interest – to see France as an outdated and irrelevant former colonial power, that is confronted with a multitude of disputes arising from colonization, certain facts seem to support this view.
It is true that France has had an important colonial period in the region, for about three centuries, from 1674 to 1954, including Madagascar, Djibouti, Mayotte, India, Indochina and in the South Pacific. On top of that, France also made immoderate use of the gunboat policy in Siam to Vietnam, China and Korea. Today, because of this history, France finds itself in conflicts with Mauritius over the island of Tromelin, with the Comoros over Mayotte and the Glorioso islands, and with Madagascar over the scattered Islands. In the Pacific Ocean, France is also facing an independence movement in New Caledonia and its possession of Clipperton has been openly questioned by Mexico. Similar situations have been observed in the Caribbean, Guyana, and even in Corsica.
In addition to the historical issues, several recent events with symbolic and significant political impact also contributed to the above perception. Such events include the nuclear tests carried out by France until 1995, the political and financial issues related to defense contracts with Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the 90s and early 2000s, and most recently the cancellation of the submarine contract with Australia in favor of the AUKUS deal and Australia’s scrapping of all defense contracts with France (Tiger attack helicopters, NH-90 transport helicopters). Furthermore, the French regional security apparatus has been significantly reduced from 8,500 to 7,000 men in the past 10 years. Not to mention the post-subprime crisis budget cuts in French diplomacy which resulted in staff reduction of all embassies. All these factors have clearly had an impact on France’s image in the region and contributed to negative opinion among the public, experts and authorities.
This negative view of France is all the more facilitated by the fact that France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, first mentioned in 2018 and officially published in 2019, remains unclear to many of our neighbors, partners and allies. The latest events have also shown that even within the community of geopolitics and international relations experts, this strategy is often poorly understood, if not completely ignored. France would certainly benefit from improving its communication around its initiatives and concrete results, making them better known and appreciated. Better cooperation would also be needed between its (too) numerous agencies, which regularly compete with each other.
France, a singular country among European nations in the Indo-Pacific
It is a fact that France might not be the most powerful, nor the bigger or the most influential country operating in the Indo-Pacific area but contrary to some experts’ beliefs and recent public comments, France is neither a small nor a distant power in the region. France is actually a resident power of the Indo-Pacific and its presence in both the Indian and the Pacific Oceans can be traced back to the first half of the 16th century and this presence has been continuously maintained. It is also important to note that although France was a colonial power, it established its influence through various means, including sharing diplomatic envoys and establishing alliances with local rulers, direct implications in various conflicts, the presence of the Jesuits scholars at the court of emperor Qianlong in China, the construction of Vauban-style fortresses in Siam and Vietnam or the creation of a a modern naval arsenal at Yokosuka in Japan. A great number of French individuals of all trades have equally brought their knowledge and skills to the local rulers. Of course, much less civilized actions have taken place later in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the colonial ventures of France’s third empire and third Republic in Madagascar, Indochina and New Caledonia, but France’s behavior following the loss of its last territories in 1954 has been that of a good partner to its neighbors.
Today also, France’s presence in the area is one of major singularity as it is the only European Union country to be a member of the United Nation security council and to be a resident power in both the Pacific and the Indian Oceans due to its long-time presence over a string of territories. Altogether these territories represent 25,810 square kilometers for a population of almost two million French citizens, including French residents, students, and tourists in nearby countries, and 93% of France’s EEZ, the second in the world right after that of the United States. France has a significant stake in the area, particularly in the economic domain. Its major companies have a strong regional presence, including in the defense sector where France ranks as the third-largest provider with successful ongoing cooperations with India, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and past successes in Australia and Taiwan.
In terms of influence and diplomacy, France enjoys a unique position with both a very dense and diverse set of soft power and cooperation tools. This includes: first, its network of embassies and consulates, one of the most important in the world; second, the French schools and cultural centers (the French Alliance network) positioned in every major city; third, its chambers of commerce and industry connecting French and local businesses; fourth, the French international cooperation institutions such as the French Development Agency (AFD) and Expertise France; fifth, a dense network of 18 military attachés on top of liaison officers at liaison officers at regional information fusion centers in Madagascar, New Delhi and Singapore, coordinating defense and maritime cooperation and conducting military diplomacy. Such a formidable and unique diplomatic tool is envied by many European countries and allows France to be an active member of the most important regional cooperation forums and mechanisms.
Limited means and innovative approach
One of the most recurring topics is that France is “lacking muscles” in the Indo-Pacific. Such assertion is not without merits, and it is true that the number of troops in the area has been reduced by 20% over the past 10 years while the naval presence has greatly diminished since the 1990s, but France doesn’t have the ambition nor the means to be a major military power in the Indo-Pacific. Its partners and allies in the regions do not expect nor request for France to take sides in the United States-China rivalry nor to interpose itself between them. Based on its historic legacy of strategic autonomy and political independence, France wishes to open a third path, neither pro-United States nor anti-China, that resonates with the non-aligned strategic posture of ASEAN’s “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”. As such, Paris favors a posture of facilitator, good neighbor, and trusted partner that promotes the rule of law and demonstrates a commitment to regional security and freedom of the seas.
France’s defense architecture in the area comprises two sub-regional commands – ALINDIEN for the Indian Ocean and ALPACI for the Pacific Ocean – and follows a “S” shaped axis. This axis connects the metropolitan heartland to its overseas territories through a network of allies and strategic partners including the United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia (but also with Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan), some of which France has established innovative strategic defense dialogue with, such as the “France-UAE-India” and “France-India-Australia” trilateral strategic dialogues. This axis also comprises five military bases located in Abu Dhabi, Djibouti, La Reunion, Nouméa and Papeete. In these bases, 7,000 soldiers and various military assets are permanently positioned to protect France’s interests. Also, it is worth noting that since the publication of its Indo-Pacific strategy, France has considerably boosted its presence in the region. This includes regular deployments of major naval assets such as its carrier battle group, nuclear attack submarines, and helicopter carriers. On top of that, France has conducted “air raids”, deploying Rafale fighter jets, A330 MRTT and A400M aircrafts from France, Djibouti and the Charles de Gaulle all the way to India, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Caledonia on a yearly basis and in record times, allowing for the demonstration of our latest equipment’s capacities and to train with our allies.
In light of a constantly strengthening American security architecture and globally absent European presence, it has taken time for the French singular positioning to gain visibility and be fully understood. Some regional countries even wondered if France was not, by nature, part of a “global West” and therefore a de facto QUAD partner but the loss of the submarine deal with Australia in favor of the AUKUS deal has greatly helped in repositioning France on the radar of many countries, especially in ASEAN. The ongoing defense cooperations between France and its major regional partners has demonstrated that France is a reliable and trustworthy partner, in all domains, and French companies now enjoy the position of 3rd largest arms exporter in the area, right behind the United States.
A stabilizing force of initiatives for the region
Surely, there are different things that France could have done better but still it has worked hard to give credibility to its action and the results can be observed. In terms of diplomacy, France has been able to establish peaceful relations with its former colonies and is currently enjoying good relations with all, including Vietnam. The defense cooperation with India especially is jointly considered excellent. Diplomatically, France has reached an agreement with Mexico over Clipperton in 2007 and signed a framework agreement on Tromelin Island with Mauritius in 2010. It has also reinforced its presence within ASEAN in three steps from 2021 to 2023 and is being more present at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Additional options have been considered to increase its standing, such as expanding its bases, positioning a permanent fleet and a Rafale squadron in the region, and even a Europeanization of its security architecture (even though it alone represent 90% of Europe’s presence), but all are economically or politically sensitive and instead France seems to favor a modernization of its existing assets for the moment.
In a more practical fashion, France is leveraging its vast maritime expertise to deepen its ties with all interested parties. It is particularly true with the concept of “state action at sea” where France has developed an internationally recognized mastery of how to best manage the maritime domain. Other domains include designing and building complex naval systems, creating and preserving marine protected areas, conducting search and rescue operations at sea, addressing marine pollution, fighting maritime crime and illegal activities, and enforcing maritime law. In another area, France has been very successful in extending its continental shelf of several of its features and could help other countries to do the same.
Finally, France has been one of the most involved countries in terms of climate change, having organized the successful COP 21 summit, it also brought a significant contribution in the recent international treaty improving the protection of the high seas and a major actor in promoting marine conservation. The size of France’s EEZ, the knowledge brought by its oversea territories all over the world, and its diverse maritime domain place France at the forefront of the countries that can make a difference and act as a cadre nation in various domains that are more and more crucial to the region: protection of global commons; resilience to climate change; protection of environment and biodiversity; cultural heritage preservation; humanitarian assistance and disaster response; blue economy; maritime security, ocean governance and protection of marine resources; and strengthening connectivity.
As we can see, France is not short of assets or initiatives and has truly transformed its policy and its strategy in the region in recent years with a universalist, inclusive and multispectral approach that goes from environment to defense cooperation and diplomacy. Many projects have been launched and encouraging results have been observed. It now remains for France to better articulate its strategy and better value the fruits of its unique approach.
Benjamin Blandin is a PhD student in geopolitics at the Paris Catholic University. He was previously a Senior Consultant in strategy at Airbus Defence and Space and consulting firms such as Accenture, Deloitte and Capgemini. He graduated from Lyon Business School (EM Lyon) in strategy consulting, University Paris II (ISAD) in geostrategy and Paris 8 (IFG) in geopolitics. Benjamin Blandin is a former auditor of the Paris Military Academy (IHEDN) and Naval Academy (CESM).
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS.