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Franco-German Divergences in the Indo-Pacific: The Risk of Strategic Dilution

Franco-German Divergences in the Indo-Pacific: The Risk of Strategic Dilution
 Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies
 Garima Mohan
Fellow in the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund

Debate on the Indo-Pacific is gaining traction in Europe. While France has been championing the idea for a long time, in September 2020, Germany became the second European country to adopt "policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific". Since then, Germany, France, and the Netherlands have also initiated the process of pushing for an EU strategy for the region. With Germany and other member states embracing the idea, the common European misperception that the Indo-Pacific is first and foremost an issue of Franco-British naval presence in the South China Sea stands a better chance of being gradually brushed aside.

But as moves towards a European vision of the Indo-Pacific gain pace, the compatibility and the coherence of the French and German visions for the region will become a central issue for Europe. At the start of this year, senior French defense officials were saying that France’s strategic vision had more in common with Australia, than with any European partner, including Germany. But "mental maps" change. Germany has followed the French steps in recognizing the importance of the Indo-Pacific as an area to defend and promote European interests, in an international order increasingly characterized by the return of bipolarity and great power competition. Its formal embrace of the Indo-Pacific has brought the two countries closer. However, obvious differences remain in the French and German visions of the Indo-Pacific. Their priorities don’t always align. These divergences will need to be reduced or circumvented in order to formulate an effective EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

Europe’s space between the United States and China

On the surface, because of the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, the Franco-German embrace of the Indo-Pacific suggests a solid basis for transatlantic alignment. Indeed, there is full French compatibility with the most salient elements of the American approach, outlined in the strategic document published by the US State Department in November 2019. These are: a free and open Indo-Pacific free of coercion; adherence to international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight; and the key importance of openness and transparency for trade and investment.

Germany pays more attention than France to downplaying conflicts with China and seeks a more "inclusive" Indo-Pacific, including the possibility of cooperation with China on issues like climate change.

The German strategy, however, reflects Germany’s reluctance to align with Washington. In this sense, the guidelines echo the refrain often heard in Berlin: "we don’t want to choose sides between the US and China". Germany opposes both unipolarity and bipolarity in the Indo-Pacific and doesn’t specify what role, if any, it expects the US to play. This German assessment of transatlantic cooperation vis-à-vis China reflects distrust towards the Trump administration and may change in case of a Biden administration. France prefers the language of "balancing power" (puissance d’équilibre) – which in practice means contributing to the overall power balance by siding with those affected by the rise in Chinese military power and political influence. 

Secondly, Germany’s Indo-Pacific guidelines reflect the shift in Germany’s assessment of China as an international actor. The guidelines are clear in criticizing powers attempting to unilaterally alter the status quo and even refer to China as an emerging power that is "calling into question existing rules of the international order". It refers to numerous disputes in the region, including in the Himalayas and the Malacca Strait, and underlines the need for "closing ranks with democracies and partners with shared values". At the same time, Germany pays more attention than France to downplaying conflicts with China and seeks a more "inclusive" Indo-Pacific, including the possibility of cooperation with China on issues like climate change.

Maritime security vs. broader engagement

France’s Indo-Pacific approach is relatively narrowly focused on defending a maritime order based on international law. France considers itself a resident power and an "island state in the Indo-Pacific", given its overseas territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The gradual undermining of the status quo in the South China Sea, in complete violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has long been identified in Paris as an issue of global significance. Former Defense Minister Le Drian, and current Foreign Affairs Minister, was already arguing in 2016 that "if the law of the seas is not respected today in the China seas, it will be threatened tomorrow in the Arctic, the Mediterranean and elsewhere". France’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans face what so far has been low-intensity challenges, and this is clearly an important driver to understand the nature of the French rationale. At the same time, the French Navy thinks of the defense of UNCLOS as a policy of "counter-intimidation".

The German Indo-Pacific guidelines outline a gradual increase of security engagement in the region, including port calls, joint exercises and the protection of global maritime trade routes. While the guidelines are not specific about German naval presence in the South China Sea, the Note Verbale submitted on September 16 by the UK, Germany and France challenging the legality of China’s maritime claims in the region shows the growing potential for more European cooperation on South China Sea related developments.

Such a broad agenda aims to play on Europe’s strengths and can prove to be an asset for European engagement with the region.

There is a logical link between France’s relatively narrow focus on maritime challenges to the larger issue of the rules-based international order, and the US-China rivalry. What is at stake for middle powers is their ability to defend an order against arbitrary abuses by superpowers. By contrast, Germany addresses this issue from a much broader perspective, beyond peace and security, including diversification of partnerships, support for open shipping routes, open markets and free trade, digital transformation and infrastructure connectivity, as well as climate change. Such a broad agenda aims to play on Europe’s strengths and can prove to be an asset for European engagement with the region.

Focus on ASEAN vs. bilateral and trilateral partnerships

While one of the key pillars of the German Indo-Pacific guidelines is diversification of its partnerships in the region beyond China, it is not specified how this would be achieved. The only clear indication is to be found on the German focus on ASEAN centrality. The other bilateral partnerships are only mentioned in the context of already existing initiatives and there is little indication whether Germany is interested in the various bilateral, trilateral and minilateral arrangements emerging in the region. By contrast, while France is also a staunch defender of multilateral diplomacy, what has been central in the practice of French foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific is the deepening of bilateral and trilateral ties with Australia, India and Japan. This has meant a radical rebalancing of a foreign policy agenda towards the East, traditionally dominated by France’s relationship with China.

Overcoming differences for an EU approach

As Germany and France, along with other member states, lead the debate for EU-wide policy guidelines, the discussion will certainly focus on how to pool European resources for an effective EU approach. But European unity behind an Indo-Pacific vision should not come at the cost of diluting the idea’s strategic substance. We suggest considering three areas of priorities for the EU Indo-Pacific strategy:

  • Maritime security, with a focus on reducing the power asymmetries between the coastal countries of the region and China’s various maritime assets, from its Navy and Coast Guards to the militia and the long-range fishing fleets. This goal can be achieved through capacity-building for greater maritime domain awareness and deepening the web of military exchanges with the navies and the maritime law-enforcement agencies of the region.
  • Infrastructure projects building on the Euro-Asian connectivity strategy, with the aim to offer alternatives to Chinese projects. Particularly in the realm of digital connectivity, 5G and critical technologies, Europe has a lot to contribute to the region and link up to the connectivity projects led by India, Japan, ASEAN and standard setting initiatives like the Blue Dot Network.
  • Any EU strategy should focus on building more resilient European supply chains against disruption and manipulation. Europe is the largest trade and investment partner for most Indo-Pacific economies and should work with like-minded states to reduce its vulnerabilities and increase its leverage. The Japan-India-Australia initiative is of great interest to European nations, and Japan’s METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) appears to be a key interlocutor for the French and the German government to design policy frameworks that strengthen supply chains in vulnerable areas, like healthcare and ICT (information and communication technology).




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