France as a key player in the Indo-Pacific?
It may be overlooked that France, being a former colonial power, has a significant domain beyond Western Europe. As of 12 June 2020, France’s total maritime spaces is 10,186,526 km² (10 760 500 km² with continental shelf extensions), from the Caribbean Sea as well as Pacific and Indian Oceans. This makes France a key maritime power and has been cognizant of the geopolitical trends that could affect its overseas domain. The increased rivalry between the United States and China and the latter’s assertive claim of majority of the South China Sea are critical issues that also affect France’s maritime activities in the Indo-Pacific and has led to the French government under President Emmanuel Macron to have a more proactive role in the region.
In 2015, France published its National Strategy for the Security of Maritime Areas, which was intended to offer a clear national inter-ministerial framework to improve the fight against maritime insecurity, based particularly on an analysis of maritime risks and threats that would likely affect the strategic interests of France and its partners. Following this France developed its Indo-Pacific Defense Strategy, which underpinned the following principles:
Protecting French sovereign interests, French nationals and France’s EEZ in the Indo-Pacific;
Contributing to the stability of regional environments through military and security cooperation;
Preserving – jointly with its partners – free and open access to maritime lines of communication;
Assisting in maintaining strategic stability through comprehensive and multilateral-based action;
While France does maintain a significant geographic presence in the Indo-Pacific, its maritime activities are still focused mainly within the French maritime territorial domain. However, with the dynamic and changing trends in geopolitical affairs, President Macron intends to make France have a more proactive role in the maritime affairs in the Indo-Pacific.
Concerning China’s rise global power, France has been outspoken on issues regarding the former’s claims in the South China Sea. France maintains for the South China Sea to remain free and open for international maritime navigation. This was translated into action when the French Floreal-class light frigate Vendemiare carried out a transit in the narrow waterway between China and Taiwan on 06 April 2019. This dismayed the Chinese government, resulting to that China’s rescinded invitation for France to attend the parade marking the 70th anniversary of the PLA Navy held on 23 April 2019. Nevertheless, it appears that the French government will not be dissuaded from continuing its maritime presence in the South China Sea. France’s recent naval deployments in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait show its willingness to promote and defend international norms—in this case, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This maritime policies and activities also led France to strengthen ties with regional partners and signaling a more proactive interest with the ASEAN and its regional forums/platforms.
India has been a key partner of France even during the Cold War, both economically and politically. The Indian Ocean is a critical geostrategic maritime area with overlapping security and economic interests for key regional and global power. France also has overseas sovereign territories in the Indian Ocean, making its relations with India significant. French-Indian relations are therefore based on mutual strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region. This can be seen with France’s partnership with India regarding to the Scorpene-class submarines and Rafale advanced combat aircrafts as well as the Varuna naval exercises between both countries’ naval forces.
Another important partner of France in the region is Australia, since it is also a key state actor in Indo-Pacific regional affairs. Relative to this, French-Australian maritime strategic relations grew further in 2016 when French company Naval Group won the bid to build a modified version of its nuclear submarine called the Shortfin Barracuda to replace Australia’s aging Collins-class submarines. Additionally, India, France, and Australia launched a trilateral dialogue in 2020 with the aim of boosting cooperation to ensure a “peaceful, secure, prosperous and rules-based Indo-Pacific”.
France has also been trying to form closer ties with the ASEAN as part of its maritime policy position is to promote multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific region. France has signaled its interest to pursue deeper ties with the ASEAN member-states and their various regional forums. Related to this, France together with Germany and the UK, welcomed the ongoing negotiations between ASEAN member states and China to establish a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and calls on all littoral states to take measures to prevent and reduce tensions and to promote and maintain peace, security, stability and safety in the region. France also developed naval ties with Malaysia by providing Scorpene-class submarines and technical assistance. More recently, France has also provided a new coast guard offshore patrol vessel for the Philippines.
With regard to the US, France shares the concern with its NATO ally on the increased strategic reach of China in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in Djibouti where they share a base of operations for the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. However, the recent ongoing rivalry between the US and China and its implications also worries France. France may agree with the United States on the reality of the threat coming from China, but certainly not on the responses that the United States has given. France’s strategy is more inclined towards multilateral engagements in the Indo-Pacific, while the US prefers bilateral engagement with selected nations in the region.
To conclude, France’s maritime activities in the Indo-Pacific have been slowly growing. In particular, France wants to have a more participative role in the ASEAN forums such as the ARF and ADMM+ among others instead of just being a guest observer. This was highlighted when French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly stated during the 18th Shangri-la Dialogue “that France supports the building of a regional security architecture and the centrality of ASEAN and has taken steps to work closer to ASEAN in different structures, in particular the ADMM+, where France would bring its operational know-how”. While France’s intentions have been clear, it is still a question if they can sustain such commitment. While being the only Western European state with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and a decent naval force, France’s reach is still limited compared to the strategic projection capabilities and deployments of the US in the Indo-Pacific region. If France intends to have a significant maritime role, it would need to step up its maritime and diplomatic activities as a signal and evidence that it is capable in helping maintain the established rules-based order.
Santiago Juditho Emmanuel L. Castillo has an MA degree in International Studies major in Asian Studies from De La Salle University and a BA degree in Philosophy from San Beda University. The focus of his graduate studies is on Japan’s defense/security policies and strategies in light of the changing security situation in the Asia-Pacific. He is also interested and researches on military technology/capability developments and defense diplomacy. He currently works as a Researcher Analyst for the Philippine government for the past three years. His research specialization and interests are warfare and strategic studies, traditional security issues, military technologies, as well as foreign and defense policies of Japan and Russia.