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After AUKUS: How Could France Reboot Its Indo-Pacific Strategy? 

ARTICLES - 4 October 2021

The September 15 earthquake is still producing aftershocks. The battle of "narratives" is raging. The French ambassador to Australia has not returned to Canberra. 

Nothing will ever be the same again. President Macron said that the affair "does not change France's Indo-Pacific strategy in any way". This may be true in principle, but the magnitude of the shock means that France may indeed need to revise its posture, at least as far as defense and security are concerned. To this end, there are two prerequisites: 

  • France must bid adieu to its hopes of being in the "Anglosphere", just as at the end of the 2000s it was unable to secure a place in the temple of intelligence cooperation, the "Five Eyes" (made up of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States). It would be unreasonable, if at all desirable, to apply for membership into AUKUS - or to expect to be asked to do so. 
     
  • Still, it seems worthwhile to tone down its rhetoric about the actions of its partners. It should avoid accusing them of fomenting an anti-China alliance that could unduly raise tensions with Beijing. First, because - let's face it, Australia has a point - China is no longer what it was ten years ago, when Canberra sought proposals for its submarine program. Secondly, because France should in fact be stirred by AUKUS’ promise of increased exchanges and cooperation in defense and security technologies - the "forest" hidden by the "tree" of the promise of US nuclear submarines. Finally, because it would be best for France not to embarrass India and Japan, who have watched the verbal exchanges of recent weeks with consternation. 

What France must not do: 

  • Consider a "pivot in reverse". The 21st century will be maritime and Asian, whether we like it or not. The French and European influence must be strengthened, through participation in the defense of common standards (freedom of navigation) and common goods (maritime security, biodiversity, etc.), and by ensuring that it contributes to the "connectivity" of the region.. 
     
  • Rely entirely on the European Union. During its presidency of the Council of the EU (2022), France will of course try to operationalize the Union's new Indo-Pacific strategy. But as the world's second largest maritime power in terms of the size of its exclusive economic zone (93% in the Indopacific), as a nuclear-weapons State and as a permanent member of the Security Council, France cannot rely entirely on the Union. All the more so since it will be necessary, at the appropriate time, to renew ties with London, which has ambitions for a much greater presence in the region. 
     
  • Stake everything on major contracts. France’s defense industry, pulled upwards by nuclear deterrence, knows how to present very high-level offers, which are often attractive alternatives to the "all-American" approach. Its logic of "strategic partnerships", by which it accompanies (almost) every major defense contract with dialogue and a relationship of trust, is the right one. But France is not always the best when it comes to grasping the strategic fabric of its customers in greater depth.  

What strategic choices does France have?

France can take four (non-mutually exclusive) paths:

  • Fully bank on India, which, as the US-China competition stiffens, does not want to be dragged into a real military alliance by Washington. 
     
  • Make Japan the "second leg" of its strategy in the region, with India remaining the first. The timing for that is ripe: Tokyo is eager for a more substantial Franco-Japanese relationship.
     
  • Propose an "enlarged Quad" (the expression "Quad plus" refers to ad hoc meetings of the Quad with ASEAN partners) bringing together all the major democratic maritime powers. This would also include the United Kingdom and perhaps even Germany - who together with France make up the EU three - but on condition that Berlin be prepared to make a quantitative leap in its Indo-Pacific investment. 
     
  • Diversify its portfolio of large strategic partnerships, strengthening its ties with Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and establishing them with Malaysia and South Korea. 

France should no longer have any reservations about supplying nuclear submarines to interested clients.

Naturally, in view of the American-British precedent, France should no longer have any reservations about supplying nuclear submarines to interested clients. Its choice of fuel (low-enriched uranium, which requires the core to be reloaded during its lifetime) would logically steer it towards states that already have a civilian nuclear complex, such as India, Japan or South Korea.

Now is also the time for France to increase the frequency and intensity of its "Track 1.5" dialogues (involving officials and experts), as part of a greater expansion of its soft power in the region. The experience of a multi-level strategic dialogue with Australia, which began in 2010, has shown that this formula can contribute to the development of mutual understanding and trust, indispensable foundations for major concrete cooperation in the field of defense and security. But that alone is not enough: more intense and sustained support - political, diplomatic, parliamentary, cultural, etc. - is needed. 

In the longer term, it is difficult to see how Paris could do without increasing its maritime and air presence in the region, particularly with regard to the "sovereignty forces" designed to protect French territories. The next military programming law (set to be voted in 2025 or earlier) will define France’s room for maneuver for the entire first half of the century. 

Now is also the time for France to increase the frequency and intensity of its "Track 1.5" dialogues.

Two parameters remain, calling for vigilance from Paris:

One is of course the great unknown of the result of the third and "final'' referendum on the independence of New Caledonia, currently scheduled for December 12. This will be an important step in the reconstruction of the French strategy in the region. Most experts on the subject believe that in the case of a "yes" vote, it should still be possible for Paris to count on the "Pebble" (as it is known in France), that was so important to America in the 1940s, and that is now coveted by Beijing. 

Then, the big question remains how France will position itself in what some call the "new Cold War" that is taking off between China and the West. In the Indo-Pacific, being the bearer of a "third way" or "détente" solution will bring France few friends and clients, even if we must be attentive to developments in the ASEAN countries, most of which do not want to be forced to choose between Beijing and Washington. This is a key lesson of AUKUS. However, the People's Liberation Army is not "two segments of the Tour de France away" from French borders, as was the Soviet army. France must therefore coordinate with its allies and with America for its Indo-Pacific strategy - which justifies, among other things, an association with the Quad - while maintaining a "European signature". This is the major question on which France and the US must reach an agreement on. 

 

 

Copyright: Thomas SAMSON / AFP

 

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