On October 26, 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron had a phone conversation for the first time since the AUKUS alliance was announced. During their phone conversation, President Xi reportedly advised his French counterpart to maintain autonomy in foreign policy. This advice is indicative of an emerging dynamic in great power relations that could significantly influence France’s role in the Indo-Pacific.
It must be recalled that on September 16, 2021, the French government issued a joint communique in response to the Australian Government’s halting of the ocean-class Futures Submarine Programme (FSP) which aims to develop nuclear-powered submarines. Under a new security pact, Australia will now buy nuclear-powered submarines from the US and cancel its existing contract with Paris, making it the first non-nuclear weapon state to do so.
This resulted in the recall of French ambassadors in the US and Australia last September 17 under the order of French president Emmanuel Macron. According to French Foreign Minister Jean Yves-Le Drian, the decision to immediately recall the two ambassadors is due to “the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on Sept 15 by Australia and the United States.” These recent diplomatic events raise the issue of whether the newly-created AUKUS alliance constrains France’s assertion of its role as an Indo-Pacific power.
The Indo-Pacific: A highly contested concept?
The term Indo-Pacific has existed for more than a decade. Japan initially articulated the doctrine in 2007 with its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy that centered on enhancing global stability and prosperity. On the other hand, Australia’s strategy revolves around the dilemma of strengthening its economic partnership with China while protecting its alliance with the United States.
Last March, the White House released a joint statement declaring the QUAD’s commitment to a shared vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and a “rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas” in order to counter China’s rising diplomatic and economic power. This irked the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which argued that the QUAD “sows discord among regional countries in Asia, especially to disrupt their relations with China.” It is also in this area where the ASEAN asserts its “centrality doctrine” as a balancing power to the Sino-American rivalry in the region.
On the other hand, France presents an alternative view of the Indo-Pacific as the heart of its strategy for a multipolar world. Considering itself as an Indo-Pacific power due to its overseas territories in the region, France views the space from eastern Africa to the coasts of North and South America as part of the “security continuum” to promote its interests as a regional power. In its 2017 Strategic Review of Defense and National Security, France expressed concern about the military assertiveness of emerging powers which use power politics and fait accompli strategies to compete for regional resources and control of strategic areas. As a veiled reference to gray-zone operations by revisionist powers such as China, the Strategic Review also underscored how international institutions and norms are being challenged through strategic ambiguity and combination of military and non-military means of intimidation.
France as an Indo-Pacific power
Despite its metropole being located in Europe, France is considered as an Indo-Pacific power for a variety of reasons. One is that it has overseas territories (e.g., Mayotte, La Réunion, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia) located in the Pacific Ocean as part of its colonial legacy. At present, there are 1.6 million French citizens living on these islands along with a significant military presence of almost 8,000 soldiers.
Additionally, the strategic sea routes in the South China Sea (SCS) provide a major part in the global sea routes, where half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage, and a third of all maritime traffic passes. Since they connect the Indian and Pacific oceans, it is in France’s interest to protect these disputed waters under the freedom of navigation doctrine in order to ensure the stability of global trade and maintain its naval access in the region.
Lastly, the cultural ties between the Francophone islands stretching from the east of Africa to the French Polynesia in the Pacific form part of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, an organization created in order to promote a “global community” of French-speaking communities. With France carrying the helm of French as a global language, it is also in France’s interest to preserve the current status quo to connect these scattered islands in the Indo-Pacific.
The China ‘threat’ to France’s Indo-Pacific interests
According to Robert Kaplan, the SCS is China’s Greater Caribbean. Similar to how the U.S. dominated the Western Hemisphere and influenced the Eastern Hemisphere by controlling the Caribbean Sea, China is expected to increase economic and military presence in other regions (i.e., Indian Ocean region, Africa, and Middle East) after dominating the SCS. Control over the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will allow Beijing to secure its supply of oil and natural gas as well as rare earth minerals that it requires to sustain its economic growth and further develop its military capabilities. Accordingly, China’s military expenditure has doubled from 2009-20, even showing a notable increase from pre-pandemic military expenditure in 2019.
Notwithstanding the sustained freedom of navigation operations by the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific allies, China has intensified its naval activities and sustained the conduct of gray-zone operations in the Indo-Pacific. As a status-quo power that benefits from the rules-based maritime order, France’s economic and strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific will therefore remain under threat by China’s increasing territorial and maritime assertiveness and potential establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone upon control of the so-called strategic triangle in the SCS.
Implications of the AUKUS alliance for France as an Indo-Pacific power
Given China’s increasing assertiveness, France’s exclusion from the negotiations that underpinned the AUKUS alliance presents two possible implications for its strategic interests as an Indo-Pacific power.
First, the diplomatic conundrum between France and the AUKUS alliance might constrain military engagements between and among France, Australia, United States, and Japan. It must be noted that prior to AUKUS, France had signaled its interest in working with allies to preserve the rules-based Indo-Pacific maritime order by sending its frigate Vendemiaire to sail through the Taiwan Strait in April 2019 and sending its nuclear submarine Emeraude to patrol the SCS and make port calls in Guam and Australia in February 2021. In April 2021, the French amphibious assault ship Tonnerre and frigate Surcouf likewise conducted joint patrols with the Royal Australian Navy before participating in the Jeanne D’Arc 21 in May 2021, a milestone multilateral exercise with U.S., Australia, and Japan. The diplomatic conundrum creates uncertainty on whether such joint drills and exercises can increase frequency as a more effective balancing strategy.
Second, the diplomatic conundrum has revealed a vulnerability in the western alliance of status-quo powers which revisionist powers such as China can exploit. It has reinforced the seeming lack of trust among western allies at a crucial time when European powers have adopted a strategy of enhanced naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region in view of intense geopolitical competition. The submarine deal has cast a doubt on the legitimacy of the US-led alliance systems in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe. France’s exclusion can be used to reinforce China’s narrative that the U.S. notion of regional security is based on a zero-sum, cold-war mentality.
The seeming disregard for the interest of a major status-quo power in the AUKUS submarine deal may support the idea that the purpose of the alliance leans more toward the individual military interests of the allies rather than the preservation of a rules-based order. Relatedly, the submarine deal might serve as an irritant in the participation of France and UK in an expanded Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, thereby also diminishing the credibility of a Quad-Plus arrangement as a balancing force in the Indo-Pacific.
Given China’s overture for France to maintain autonomy in its foreign policy, it can be expected that Beijing will seek deeper engagements with Paris in the future to pull it away from Washington’s strategic orbit. Hence, unless the AUKUS allies can integrate France in an expanded military arrangement that offsets the political and economic costs that it incurred, the implications mentioned may become more possible. Unfortunately, these possible scenarios can only constrain France’s role as an Indo-Pacific power.