Following France’s fury over the September 15 announcement of AUKUS – an Australian-British-American security pact that involves Canberra giving up a major submarine contract with Paris in 2016 – one wonders where the storm over the Australian fallout leaves France’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
French defense contractor Naval Group may have lost a $ 66 billion contract to the United States, but it is a fact that France has no intention of pulling out of a region which she has long considered to be one of her priorities.
The country’s presence in the Indo-Pacific predates that of many great powers, including the United States. Reunion, a department in the Indian Ocean, became French territory from the 18th century. Today, with 859,000 inhabitants, it still sends seven deputies to the National Assembly in Paris. Even tiny Wallis and Futuna in the Pacific have their own French MPs. The other French territories in the region too.
The recent and still unresolved crisis raises three related questions.
The first question is: where do Franco-Australian relations go from here and where does Paris ultimately want to position itself within this immense region?
Over the past two decades, France has in fact gradually transformed its historical presence into strategic interests. The Indo-Pacific, says the government in its new revised strategy of August 2021, “has become a geopolitical and geo-economic reality. The center of gravity of the world economy has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron visited the region to consolidate ties with his allies and signed a strategic partnership with Australia. He recently declared France’s desire to “contribute to making the Indo-Pacific a free, safe and open space, which has great ambitions in terms of oceans, climate and biodiversity, and integrated in terms of ‘infrastructures and human exchanges’.
Those grand intentions will now have to be reconsidered, along with what promises to be a fierce legal battle with the government and advisers to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison over the canceled contract. Trust between the two countries will need to be rebuilt, and France’s long-term relationship in the region will need to extend well beyond Australia, to include countries like India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The second question concerns the pride of the EU. As the leaders of the UKUS countries decided to announce their initiative just a day before the EU planned to launch its own Indo-Pacific strategy, what were they thinking?
By blatantly ignoring the EU’s claims, they sent the wrong message to Europeans, as France is arguably the most active European country in the Indo-Pacific. The nation has a vast maritime domain in the region, in addition to 1.6 million citizens and a military presence of 7,000, more than that of the twenty-six other EU member states combined.
France’s Indo-Pacific strategy partly inspired the Dutch and German strategies as well as the aforementioned EU strategy, which had been in preparation for months. It will take time for the administration of US President Joe Biden, now with a new Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, veteran Karen Donfried, to restore confidence.
If the meeting of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Macron on October 5 in Paris paved the way for a better recognition of France’s role in the region, Europeans now understand Washington’s unilateral pivot towards the Indo-Pacific. .
Despite statements about rallying like-minded democratic countries, the Biden administration did not anticipate France’s reaction. This will have long-term negative consequences on the image of the United States and on transatlantic relations, already damaged by Donald Trump’s presidency.
Finally, the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States seem to have ignored the fact that some 280,000 French citizens living in New Caledonia will soon, most likely in December, decide by referendum whether to stay or not in French.
As New Caledonia is geographically one of the closest territories to the Australian continent, this can affect the regional balance of power. If the territory became independent, it would risk being subjected to strong financial and political pressures from China, much like Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa or Papua New Guinea, for example. Many of these countries have their own Chinese communities and have been persuaded by China to join its Belt and Road initiative.
If the Caledonian situation were to deteriorate in the future, Australia would have no choice but to get involved, and might not have the means to do so, unless it relied on the United States. United. Cooperating with France could be an option if the two sides were willing to talk. Australia is also awaiting the critical signing of a free trade agreement with the EU, now delayed by France.
Still, there could be a silver lining to this diplomatic crisis.
As the April 2022 presidential and legislative elections approach, French politicians and analysts are debating the Indo-Pacific more than ever. This means that the strategy will evolve. Macron has succeeded in making his country’s voice heard far beyond the transatlantic sphere on a major geostrategic subject.
On September 22, President Biden recognized “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, including within the framework of the recently released European Union strategy for the Indo-Pacific” .
Back in Europe, Macron was also able to present his point of view on European defense at a summit in Slovenia. Europeans may not feel the need to keep their distance from the United States, but there is a growing feeling, including among France’s neighbor, Germany, that Washington’s new concentration on the Pacific is no longer in force. is not in the interests of the EU. That’s why France’s “third way” in the Indo-Pacific might not be such a bad idea after all.