France’s vision for the Indo-Pacific is distinctly not pivoted towards being part of the US-China rivalry that is brewing in the region
From a French point of view, AUKUS is about much more than a cancelled submarine deal. It is a sign that the Anglosphere is pursuing a strategic agenda increasingly incompatible with how Paris envisions security in the Indo-Pacific.
When the Australian government announced the termination of the 2016 French submarine procurement deal in favour of a new arrangement with the United States, the reaction in Paris was firm, and the wording uncompromising. No prior warning had been given to the French President Emmanuel Macron, who suddenly found himself blindsided and short of a 56-billion euro defence contract. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, accused both the US and Australia of duplicity, lamenting that their behaviour was far from what long-standing allies should expect from each other. The rift was so serious as to induce Macron to recall the French Ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, a move that has seen no precedent in centuries of diplomatic relations between the three countries.
The emerging AUKUS alliance is likely to have long-term consequences, as it might have accelerated an already existing process of divergence within NATO between European powers and the Anglosphere.
Many commentators, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have been quick to dismiss the backlash coming from France as a short-lived bout of anger. However, the emerging AUKUS alliance is likely to have long-term consequences, as it might have accelerated an already existing process of divergence within NATO between European powers and the Anglosphere. That seems to have been the conclusion reached by the French government, which has stated that the termination of the submarine deal “only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy”, which is designated as the only credible “path for defending our interests and values around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region”. Leaving aside the internal EU debate over how exactly this can be translated into policy, why is strategic autonomy even necessary? Beyond frankly self-serving, petty power struggles at the highest levels of national bureaucracies, are there reasons to think that France genuinely believes it can use strategic autonomy to bring about a different, more stable, safer Indo-Pacific?
The wind-swept, volcanic island of La Réunion appears as an almost perfect circular dot on the map. It is located to the east of Madagascar, in the southernmost waters of the Indian Ocean. As per most recent census information, it is home to roughly 850,000 French nationals. The French overseas department, Mayotte, nestled in the northern portion of the Mozambique Channel, hosts another 290,000. The rest of the 1.6 million French citizens that reside in the Indo-Pacific are scattered between New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and other smaller islands. The combined exclusive economic zones of these territories add up to 9 million square kilometres. This, on top of the fact that exports to Asia amount to one-third of French exports outside of the EU, firmly places France as an Indo-Pacific nation with direct stakes in the future of the region. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Paris prioritises establishing “a multipolar, stable, and inclusive order” in the Indo-Pacific, and that it is keen on maintaining and building capacities to enforce it.
Given the context, it should also be apparent why the French government reacted so strongly. The Australian submarine deal could be understood, from the point of view of Paris, as a way for a key French ally to expand their defence capabilities, while simultaneously expanding the might and technical expertise of their own defence industry. Indeed, the submarine deal accounted for around 10 percent of the expected revenue for French defence contractor Naval Group, which had, for the occasion, created an Australian subsidiary. It was one of several initiatives spearheaded by the French government for its industries to penetrate into the Indo-Pacific market, which was supposed to build on existing agreements with India, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
The submarine deal accounted for around 10 percent of the expected revenue for French defence contractor Naval Group, which had, for the occasion, created an Australian subsidiary.
France’s procurement ability is, of course, complementary to its own deployable military capacity in the Indo-Pacific, which is substantial and only projected to increase. French military personnel in the region amount to between 7,000 and 8,000 members, operating 15 warships and 38 aircrafts, which are joined by specialised units deployed regularly from the mainland for additional support. The French Defence ministry conducts and participates in regular multi-national training exercises, such as a recent one in the Bay of Bengal, in coordination with the United States, India, and Japan.
Alongside relying on its own extensive resources, France considers the European Union and the potential partnerships it can build in the region to be of central importance to the advancement of French interests in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, in the wake of the AUKUS announcement, Macron and his administration did not waste any time in pointing to European strategic autonomy as the necessary next step for France and the rest of the EU.
Breaking the duality
This brings us to the second, more profound reason France has been so public with its indignation over the US-Australian submarine snub. It is not entirely, as speculated in the press, due to the fact that Paris was side-lined and diplomatically isolated. While that has undoubtedly further entrenched doubts over Washington’s long-term commitments to its European allies, it is only one side of the story. Indeed, the reason AUKUS has caused such antagonism in the French government is because it is fundamentally antithetical to how France envisions security-building in the Indo-Pacific. Namely, the trilateral Anglo-Saxon military and defence alliance has been conceived in open opposition to the Chinese growing presence in the region. From the point of view of the French government, this move is bound to reinforce a dualistic understanding of power, which sees Washington diametrically opposed to Beijing, with everyone else either taking sides, or being caught in the middle. The French have not been the only ones to reach this conclusion in the wake of AUKUS, as the skeptical reactions coming from India and ASEAN suggest. This is explicitly addressed by the French Strategy for the Indo-Pacific: “Chinese-American strategic competition […], giving priority to bilateral arrangements and power relations in order to favour their own national interests, contribute[s] to the breakdown of the international order”. Strategic autonomy is, therefore, understood to be both the means to disentangle European powers from this self-reinforcing destructive dynamic, and the premise necessary to build an alternative, multipolar order in the Indo-Pacific.
The trilateral Anglo-Saxon military and defence alliance has been conceived in open opposition to the Chinese growing presence in the region.
France’s mitigating efforts have materialised as a web of sophisticated diplomatic initiatives which Paris has been weaving over the last five years. President Macron has been particularly active in building a holistic partnership with India, whose leader, Prime Minister Modi, was the first one he called after the rift with the United States. This has only been the most recent development in a bilateral relationship that has been growing for decades. In 2019, France and India accelerated their strategic convergence in a two-day summit in Paris, which led to joint military exercises and the signing of a 7.91-billion euro military procurement contract for fighter jets. ASEAN-EU relations have also been steadily expanding over the course of the last decade, with two Free Trade Agreements signed (Singapore and Vietnam) and several under negotiation. In 2020, ASEAN and the European Union elevated their relationship to a ‘strategic partnership’, which means increased coordination of their respective defence policies. Japan and South Korea are, of course, amongst France and the EU’s natural allies in the Indo-Pacific. While both of their governments have shown more enthusiasm over AUKUS and Washington’s pivot to Asia, the existing and future areas of convergence with Europe are undeniable. Japan and the EU have signed an important connectivity partnership for the Indo-Pacific in 2019, an FTA in the same year, and a Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2018.
The Australian U-turn on the submarine deal was particularly hard to swallow for Paris because of the time and effort that the French government has been investing into its relationship with Canberra. Indeed, in 2016, the two countries signed an agreement for enhanced intelligence sharing, followed, in 2017, by a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and in 2018, by a Vision Statement on the Australia-France relationship. President Macron even chose Sydney as the location to launch his Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, signalling that his government considered the France-Australia bilateral relationship central to their foreign policy. Therefore, the Australian government deciding to rescind an important piece of the strategic partnership that the two countries had been building outside of the US-China binary comes as a major disappointment. Especially, because Canberra did so to align itself with Washington, thus, directly undermining the multipolar vision of the Indo-Pacific that France is trying to build.
Behind France’s irritation towards the AUKUS alliance, there is a genuine conviction that the new defence initiative feeds into the strategic competition that Washington is pursuing vis-à-vis China, ultimately undermining long-term security in the Indo-Pacific. There is a realisation that American interests will increasingly be at odds with that of European powers, and that the latter should be prepared to execute their own independent vision. This constitutes the political basis for French and European strategic autonomy, whose outcome aspires to be a meaningfully and qualitatively different future for the Indo-Pacific region: Multipolar, stable, inclusive.
Andrea Moreschi is a research intern at the Strategic Studies programme at ORF
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).