(Re)defining French strategy in the Indo-Pacific: time for France to diversify its alliances in favour of regional players


By Carla Haid, co-head of the South Asia, Pacific & Oceania Department and Alexandre Negrus, President of Institut d'Études de Géopolitique Appliquée. 

Original publication in French on September 20, 2021

France, victim of a blind trust in its allies and of an overly American-centric vision

"Major breach of trust," "betrayed trust relationship », "unilateral and unpredictable decision," the words of the Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves le Drian are clear, the pursuit of a common Indo-Pacific strategy has lost its coherence. In a press release dated 17th September 2021, the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs announced the recall of its ambassadors to the United States and Australia. This is a historic first, and for good reason: it is the reaction of the French chancellery to the unilateral breach of the century contract with Naval Group by the Australian partner. An inelegant slap in the face, materialized by a three-way alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Following this strategic turnaround ordered by the United States, it is paramount to reflect seriously on the foreign policy that France should conduct, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, which has become the new global strategic pivot where large and medium powers are manifesting themselves. Beyond theoretical studies and intellectual debates, France must be realistic about its interests and conduct an in-depth analysis of the balance of power in the region. Although France is considered the sovereign nation of this region (with more than 1.6 million French citizens in these territories and with its important EEZ), its strategic power in terms of defense is not, on its own, sufficient to counter the threats in the region. Affirming ambitions is certainly an important diplomatic phase, but to carry weight as a power, the means must follow the discourse. If France openly shows its indignation at the cancellation of this giant contract, which is described as a betrayal, redesigning its regional partnerships while reworking its future objectives is crucial.

In these circumstances, it can be argued that France is guilty of an error of analysis regarding Australia's strategy and, in any case, of blind trust in the United States under the Biden administration. Threat perception by states evolves over time, and this is notably the case for Australia, which was convinced that, faced with the rise of China in the region, it would need the powerful American ally more to ensure its security and develop its defence strategy. This lack of anticipation of Australia's strategic vision is a proof of naivety on the part of Paris, while Canberra had been showing signs of mistrust for several months, not to mention American lobbying.

Obviously, after more than two years of negotiations and six years of agreement, this sudden break with Naval Group is a blow to the French-Australian bilateral relationship. The French authorities must understand that Canberra wants to align itself with Washington in the long term. Moreover, although the AUKUS alliance has the ambition to cooperate with other major powers in the area such as France, it has not included the latter in this new strategic partnership. However, this sidelining of France could prove beneficial since it could allow France to detach itself from the American strategic vision while focusing on redefining its own Indo-Pacific strategy and (re)vitalizing its cooperation with countries in the region. This reversal of fortune could therefore be the right moment for France to rethink the steps to be taken to achieve the objectives of its initial strategy, that of a free, open and multilateral Indo-Pacific axis. The word strategy implies the conception and definition of coordinated steps and action plans to achieve a time-bound objective.

France or the dynamization of its cooperation with regional actors

While France has announced its Indo-Pacific strategy for 2019, positioning Australia, India and Japan as major partners, as well as the United States, a renewed development of cooperation with other countries in the region, particularly those of ASEAN, should be a priority. Indonesia, for instance, could in the future become a key, even indispensable, partner for France. By being at the heart of this regional dynamic and striving to make its voice heard in the Indo-Pacific, Indonesia could find its place in the new perspectives of the French defense strategy [1]. Moreover, France's first participation in the ADMM+ [2] in December 2020, where the Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, was the guest of honor of Vietnam, is a point of support that France must play on to participate more in the multilateral discussions in the region.

Strategically, France must maintain the course of a clear and coherent strategy in the Indo-Pacific, being aware of the necessary diversification of regional alliances and where French partnerships must not be based almost exclusively on arms contracts. This episode, although it is a hard blow for France, does not call into question France's strategy in the Indo-Pacific precisely because France has territories to defend in the region and what must count for it is not only the sale of arms but the protection of the sovereignty of its territories. In assuming its place as a regional power, France must continue to promote an inclusive strategic vision, where stability and multilateralism are the priorities.

It is now necessary to manage this diplomatic crisis between NATO allies in the best possible way in order to avoid any division. It is essential, in this case, not to give China any arguments to further deepen this rift between allies, on which China is already playing with its anti-American strategy and its anti-Western vision.

China, eternal winner of this "Western" division?

If China has been able to show its great mastery of its divide and rule strategy as a tool for influence and power in foreign territories, which has notably caused certain tensions within the European Union itself, [3] China understands perfectly well the indispensable unity within its discourse and policy to prosper.

Chinese poet Du Mu 杜牧 (803 - 852)'s reflection on Sun Zi's famous work The Art of War speaks of division as the center of war strategies, emphasizing the idea that one must be united in battle. This would refer to the current Chinese strategy, based on the idea that, by occupying the enemy from multiple sides night and day, with sometimes contradictory positions, the enemy will eventually divide his forces to protect himself from the surrounding threat. Yet, it is by dividing the enemy's forces that this will undeniably lead to his downfall. This echoes what has been happening in recent days between France and Australia. Although this Franco-Australian and Franco-American division is not directly initiated by China, it remains one of the driving forces behind this turn of events. The Australian view is that China's growing threat in the region has driven Australia to redefine its defense policy by turning to the United States. China could then take advantage of this division and the opportunity provided by the West to strengthen its strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, it should remain wary of the gradual rise of regional strategic partnerships that could harm it and serve it in the future.

What future for France in the Indo-Pacific?

The challenge for France is therefore twofold: to succeed in rebuilding a common strategy with its allies while developing its cooperation with the other regional actors in the Indo-Pacific. Without a unified discourse and if tensions persist with its closest allies, France may have difficulty keeping its regional strategy on course. Moreover, with the New Caledonian referendum approaching (December 2021), France could lose a great deal of legitimacy and credibility in the region if it does not manage to assert itself more strongly within regional alliances and firmly demonstrate its ability to defend its principles.

For once, it is useful to remember that American power remains credible on the international scene. Those who recently saw signs of an alleged American decline were wrong. The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan has brought the new American strategy full circle, namely a rebalancing towards the Indo-Pacific in accordance with the American "pivot" undertaken since 2011. The diplomatic game is made up of alliances of circumstance and, it should be remembered, the United States has scorned one of its partners, France, while favouring two other allies, Australia and the United Kingdom. That being said, the Australians and Americans know full well that France will need them for its Indo-Pacific strategy. The reverse has yet to be proven.

Moreover, Chinese hegemony remains the ultimate threat in the region for many countries, which must continue to move forward jointly in full awareness and responsibility. Ultimately, this unilateral breach of contract with Naval Group reveals that we are far from the realization of a common vision between allies in the Indo-Pacific, which is indispensable when a promising strategic cooperation had been drawn up.

In a nutshell, France needs to have a long-term vision, but above all a vision that is defined and delimited in time to achieve its objectives. While maintaining the foundations of its initial strategy, France should focus on redefining and even readjusting its future strategy in the region, particularly by revitalizing its cooperation with sovereign countries in the region and diversifying its partnerships with regional actors. Working for Indo-Pacific stability cannot be done without the support and cooperation of the States of the Indo-Pacific zone. Moving forward with cooperation in a spirit of goodwill, including the promotion of common positions and joint programs in the region, is paramount. Diplomatic efforts must now be concentrated on the financial counterparts that will be requested from Australia, while focusing on the political counterparts that Australia and the United States could propose to France.

[1] A strategy that is in line with the Franco-Indonesian cooperation effort, notably with the Indonesia France Defense Dialogue (IFDD) initiated in 2013. Indonesia could be a supporting force for the French strategy by seeking stability in the region and advocating the multilateralist approach.

[2] ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus

[3] The tensions between France and Germany concerning the Alstom and Siemens groups; The creation of alliances between EU and non-EU countries with China 16+1 etc.

[4] Notably as the QUAD (United States, Japan, Australia and India) which seeks above all to contain Chinese influence in the region and which could potentially welcome South Korea or as the members of the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States) which could quickly encircle China.